In part two of our extensive chat with Japanese music game specialist iNiS, co-founder Keiichi Yano talks about the company's foundations and how it strives to use game mechanics to uncover and augment the emotions latent in music...iNiS has been around for quite a while, but it’s been operating under the radar of many up until recently. How did it all start off?
We started off 12 years ago as a multimedia company with four people. Three of those four had music backgrounds – they’d been schooled in it, or were professionals at it, or in my case were kind of both. So we started off doing multimedia CD-ROM titles in the music space – we worked in the early days with Yamaha on some experimental titles – not games, more attractive things that we could do with music.
So we were doing that initially for a couple of years, and we kept on doing that – one of the big things that we did then was an interactive music engine called MixJuice, about a year and a half before we started Gitaroo Man, our first game. MixJuice was really kind of a culmination of a lot of things – it actually came up from a government grant that we received to research interactive music technologies. We actually worked very closely with Microsoft – this is back in the days of DirectX 5 or 6, really early days – and we worked closely with them to work out how we could do this.
As an end result, they actually used it as a music demo in the original Xbox, when they were showing it around to developers to show what the box could do. We ported the technology over to the early dev kits when they were just bare motherboards. So, yeah, that kind of started us off into that direction of slowly going into games.
So after that, in 2000 we started development of Gitaroo Man. At that time, everything was foreign to us – we all had music backgrounds but none of us had game development backgrounds. So it was like ‘Um, so how do you make a PS2 title?’ [laughs]. So we called up Sony – just called them up out of the Yellow Pages and said ‘So, we want to do a PS2 title – what do we do?’ So after we were forwarded a bunch of times we figured out how to do that.
How did you get Koei on board?
During that time we were fortunate enough to have contacts with Koei’s sound division, and they were tasked to do some titles so I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this idea – have you ever seen the movie Crossroads?’ It’s a movie about this kid who makes a deal with the devil to become a famous guitar player, but then wants to cut the deal off. So right at the end they do this big guitar battle, and that was kind of one of the original inspirations for that.
Personally, I’m a student of jazz, I play the saxophone, but Jazz is all about improvisation – when you’re doing jazz, you’re improvising against the music but also against each other. So it was like ‘Guitar battles – that’d be kind of cool. What if we could actually visualise that?’ So we had laser beams coming out of the guitars [laughs].
We were fortunate enough to know those guys, and were able to figure out how to develop for PlayStation 2, so we got a deal with Koei to build it and that’s what kind of started it off. We released the game in 2001, which was really really tough – we had to build the game in ten months, having never programmed a game console before.
We had to learn a lot of things, but eventually we pulled through – it was a small team of about 20 people, and I did a lot of the work. I designed it, I directed the team, I was the lead programmer, and I even played in one of the songs – it was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of overnighters, but we pulled through, and I’m pretty proud of it to this day – it’s not the best thing we’ve ever done, but it was a good first stab, and it kick-started our game development business.
You also created a massive, hydraulic Gundam arcade game prototype, right? How did that come about?
Yeah, after Gitaroo Man we had a couple of years where we did some prototypes, one of which was this Gundam game. Right after Gitaroo Man, I had the idea that I really wanted to start developing our own game engine so that we could do more robust development. So that’s when we started doing that, and a colleague of mine called us up and said, “Bandai want to do a Gundam game, and they want to do it as an arcade prototype with a motion base.” And we thought, well, that’d be interesting, and a good chance to test out the engine.
So that, again, was a really short development time – about five months in total – but it was this big ass box, a 100-inch screen, 5.1 audio, four people could sit in it at once – two playing, two just sitting enjoying the ride. That was very very exiting. It was running on a Windows PC, with the latest GeForce at the time – like a GeForce 3 Ti or something. We were able to do shaders and push that technology pretty far. So that sort of kick-started us into our own engine.
After that we had a short stint with another prototype for another year, and then at the E3 that they announced the PSP and DS. We checked out the DS booth and thought it was kind of cool; it was our first encounter with the touch screen. That’s when we had the idea that we could port this Ouendan game we’d been thinking about to the DS.
Ouendan always seemed completely tied to the DS hardware - but it was originally planned for another platform?
Yeah. We’d had the idea about a year before, but had been developing it for a completely different platform. So we got together the game design and pitched it to Nintendo. We were lucky enough that the section chief that took the project on was the leader of an ouendan himself when he was at university [an ouendan is a male cheerleading squad found at many sports teams and universities, which focuses more on chanting and drumming than acrobatics]. People at the Nintendo side were looking at us with blank faces, but we had a semi-prototype working where we could let people poke my laptop screen and that kind of conveyed the mechanic.
That kind of launched us into the Ouendan phase of our company, which would last us for about three years, through Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Elite Beat Agents and Ouendan 2. Those three titles kind of put us in a lot of people’s psyches for the first time, and we had good unit sales on EBA and Ouendan 2, so it was really good for us. That kind of launched us into a whole bunch of other games, subsequently Lips being one of them.
There was a guy I met at Microsoft Game Studios in business development, and his Japanese was just incredible, I’d never spoken to anyone at Microsoft with that level of Japanese. Nothing came out of that initial meeting, but subsequently I sent him the pitch for Lips – well, actually, I sent him a general outline of what I wanted to do, and then pitched it to their team. And here we are, about fifteen months later [laughs].
Looking at demo screenshots, your engine is pretty advanced – is Lips the first time it’s been used, or has it been underpinning other stuff?
Right now our engine is PC, Wii and 360 compatible. We’ve actually licensed the Wii version of our engine to another game that’s coming out soon, but I can’t say which one. For our internal purposes, in terms of a full product, this would be the first time we’re using it on 360 definitely. It’s kind of exciting having it out there.
There’s obviously a large music motif underpinning what you’ve done, but the path you’ve taken – from interactive to games, from console to handheld and back again – has that followed a plan, or has it been a case of circumstance?
The central vision at iNiS is to basically bring a level of enjoyment with music through technology that hasn’t been exploited before. For example, with Gitaroo Man, the original vision for that was that up until then rhythm games were all about the rhythm. But, to me, music is about more than just melody – you don’t remember drums so much, you remember the melody; when you sing a song, you sing the melody. So I wanted to make a game where you could play with the melody, so when you do that you really remember it. I think one of the things that was good from our standpoint with Gitaroo Man was that people really remember those melodies, and that’s because they’ve played them, they’re in sync with them.
With Ouendan, for example, it’s all about the spirit that you get. Like, if you’ve ever studied music theory you’ll know that when you talk about chord progressions, when they match with their melodies and harmonies, they have meaning. When you put them in certain orders, it evokes certain emotions. You put them in another order, and it evokes other emotions.
So in Ouendan we have these characters that are really hot blooded, and we choose different songs for different scenarios. The matching process there is quite a bit of touchy-feely, but it’s also an analysis of what those songs are trying to convey at an emotional level from the musical level. To be able to reflect that upon the scenario, even the placement of the rhythm markers, what we want any player to feel at any given time – we’re just trying to reflect all that. So again, it’s about taking the music and showing people that these are the emotions that you should be feeling from this, through the power of interactivity
It’s the same thing with Lips now. Singing is pretty much the most straightforward thing anyone can do – whether they’re good or not is a different matter, but anyone can do it. So we can take that and say, ‘These are the emotions that we want you to feel given a particular song’. I think our central vision has always been there and it hasn’t changed – I think it’s changed in how we deliver it.
It has to change depending on the platform – like I won’t think an Ouendan game would work very well on the 360, it was the DS that really made it work. We do try to match the platform with the idea, but I think the central focus has always been ‘this is what we want to you to feel with the music’, and we do all these things with the game design and visuals to make sure that you feel that as a player.
Was this wish to communicate musical emotion something that influenced the ‘short story’ structure of Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents?
Yeah. For example, a lot of the Ouendan fans that we have that are not in Japan – they don’t even know what the song’s saying! But they still feel a certain affinity with the song and with the character in question for that stage. So I feel we’re succeeding in that aspect, in that we can make the song make you feel a certain way and then, with the visual,s it all syncs up. And that’s why it’s powerful, because it all syncs up. It’s a very strong message, I think.
Do you think that sort of approach helps involve different types of people than just core players?
Well, I think it has its upsides and its downsides. The upside is that, when you can connect to it, it’s a very strong connection, a very strong bond, and I think that’s what we’ve found with our fanbase – they connect with the characters very well. But there are other people that don’t connect at all.
I think that any time that you’re dealing with characters or stories, there’s always a fear that people won’t connect with it. There are positives and negatives, and it’s just one approach of many to involve people who wouldn’t normally associate themselves with games. Which is also another sort of core concept of ours, and in the music game genre right now.