Tokyo-based iNiS has carved quite a reputation for itself thanks to rhythm-action greats such as Gitaroo Man and Elite Beat Agents, the western version of its domestic smash hit Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!. Director of development Takashi Fuji talks to Ed Fear about thinking globally, future plans and ‘happy games’…
Many people would say that your games have a 'Japanese' feel to them - they've got that manga dynamism, and they're happy, positive games. Has that been iNiS' objective from the start?
Yeah. We wanted to make things that made people feel happy. We didn't want to make games where you attack or hurt people. Of course, those kind of games are great, and certainly exciting, but our aim from the very beginning was to make games that would move people - make them laugh or even cry.
Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents both have moments like this – do you think games are a suitable medium for conveying these sorts of emotions?
Yeah, I definitely think games are suitable for moving people or making them laugh . But if it’s just ‘making you laugh’ or ‘making you sad’, it’s no different from books or films.
What I want to emphasise are the things only games can do. These are experiences that are only allowed by games, and people who aren’t interested in games can’t feel these experiences.
What’s more, games are different from films and books in that they’re interactive, and you play them for as long as you like. Emotions can change depending on play time, and that’s a unique characteristic of games.
I want many people to experience these things, so to do that I want to make games that can appeal to lots of different people.
Recently, though, games involving violence or crime have become really popular. In this sort of climate, can happy games like Elite Beat Agents and Ouendan survive?
I'd like to think so, I hope so. I think in Japan games like that are less popular, but they're certainly popular in America and Europe. I think it's a matter of balance. I think it'd be good if those sorts of games were more popular in Japan and happy games were more popular in Europe. Both kinds of games are equally fun, right?
Some would say that when a lot of people in the West see a 'happy' game they think 'Ah, that's for kids'. How can people such as yourselves change that opinion?
Well, there are several ways. The first is... well, in Japan, comics and anime have been around for years and years, and if an adult reads comics it's nothing out of the ordinary. In America, if an adult reads a comic, they get seen as a bit childish, maybe a bit of a geek, right? But Disney is popular. If anime or comics become more ordinary, then that might change.
Then, of course, there's game design. Before they play it, when they first look at the game, they might think 'Aaah, this is for kids, right?' but then when they try it they realise it's a proper rhythm action game. So first we need to get them to play the game, and so marketing, commercials, magazine coverage are all important. You have to actively give people a chance to play it.
Guitar Hero is really popular in America and Europe at the moment. iNiS hasn't made a music game that uses a peripheral - would you like to?
We're interested. If we got the chance, maybe. There are quite a few games where the designers have said “this is the peripheral, so this is how the game will work”. The peripheral comes before the game design.
If we design a game – let's say, for example, about playing the trumpet or something - if we thought that playing the game would be more interesting on a peripheral than on the pad, then maybe we'd make a peripheral. But right now we're not thinking of anything.
Is iNiS a company that'll always focus on music games, or would you like to try your hand at other game genres?
Well, I can say that we're not exclusively focused on music. It's not necessarily the case that we'll only make music games. We'd love to tackle other game genres. When we think 'what shall we do now?', the first thing is that it's 'happy'... but it could be role-playing, action, rhythm-action, simulation, whatever. We're willing to challenge anything.
The Japanese game-market is getting smaller, and some Japanese game companies such as Capcom are making games focused towards the Western market–
Ah, like Lost Planet?
Yeah. And yet, Gitaroo Man and Ouendan are both unashamedly Japanese, but quite a cult hit in the west. These are people who maybe haven't heard Japanese music before, and now everyone who's played Ouendan knows 'Linda Linda', for example.
It's introducing people to Japanese music. How do you feel about that?
Well, it's totally unexpected. How do we feel? [laughs]
If we've introduced people to Japanese culture - if people play Ouendan and hear this music for the first time and think 'Oh! This is pretty good!' and maybe go and buy the CD or something... then I'm really happy about that. But I think it's not much more than coincidence!
iNiS has recently started presenting at development conferences - what made you want to do this?
We did GDC, and recently at the Tokyo Game Tools and Middleware Forum we introduced iNiS’ method for dealing with 2D graphics. Everyone in the audience, most of them were developers and graphic designers, and most companies are making DS titles. We introduced what we do at iNiS, and when people hear this they’ll go ‘Aaah, I get it!’ or ‘Huh? They still do it that way? How old fashioned!’ We want to do that sort of cooperation, that sort of discussion.
Is that important for this new generation?
Yeah, it is. If Japanese developers can improve their techniques and skills then they’ll make better games. That’s what I hope.
Up until two or three years ago, there weren’t many Japanese developers participating in these sorts of events. And then suddenly, it’s started to change, and there are more and more Japanese developers willing to talk. What’s changed?
This is just my opinion, but up until now Japanese developers have been focused on putting all their effort into making games for the Japanese market. But now that market isn’t as big as the American and European marketplace.
We became aware of these markets about five or six years ago and thought we needed to try our best to make fun games for people all over the world. I think that’s what [our talk at] GDC was about – showing that this is the way we think.
I think the number of developers who want their games to be played by people all over the world is increasing. Back in the PlayStation 1 or SNES eras, everyone was playing Japanese-developed games, and so I don’t think there were many people who were conscious to the outside markets like America.
Not only that, but now the position of the ‘gamer’ is changing. Before, games were aimed at enthusiasts, geeks. But now, all sorts of people are gamers. I think this is definitely the era where you won't be able to make good games unless you listen to all sorts of people and take into account lots of different ways of thinking.