Keiji Inafune Balances Freedom With Gamer Fans’ Demands (Q&A)
Eric Johnson / Re/code
Keiji Inafune was one of last year’s biggest Kickstarter success stories, but many gamers have known his name since long before crowdfunding existed.
From 1987 to 2010, Inafune worked for Capcom, where he designed and co-created the iconic character Mega Man, also known as Rockman in Japan. The Mega Man games, released primarily for Nintendo consoles, were hailed at the time as groundbreaking examples of “platformer” design as the title character ran, jumped and shot his way through an ever-growing rogues’ gallery of evil robots.
Over time, though, Capcom lost interest in the series. It hasn’t published a new Mega Man platformer in years, having moved on to newer franchises like Resident Evil and Dead Rising, both of which Inafune also worked on as a producer.
Fans’ nostalgia for the old Mega Man games is still strong, though, as evidenced by the $3.8 million raised by Inafune’s new company Comcept for its new game Mighty No. 9 last year. In a Q&A with Re/code at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, Inafune discussed the advantages of crowdfunding, the influence of mobile gaming and the pressures of making something that feels both old and new.
Speaking through an interpreter, Inafune said Comcept is trying to reconcile its roots in Japanese game development with how the industry has changed in recent years.
“There’s not a lot of really interesting games that have been coming out of Japan recently,” he said. “In the past, a lot of western developers would’ve looked at Japanese games and learned a lot from those. Nowadays, a lot of Japanese developers are looking at western development and learning from that.”
Another influential source: Mobile games, which have found great success in Japan as well as worldwide; last year, Japan surpassed the U.S. in app store revenue, according to App Annie. Comcept’s projects include a series of odd mobile games starring eggs containing “ossan,” or middle-aged Japanese men.
“People who are only focused on making 10-20 hour games, they’ll be really busy with that,” Inafune said. “There’s a lot that can be learned from what you can do in just five minutes from mobile games. Mobile definitely has been an influence on me and an influence on the company as a whole.”
Throughout the process of promoting Mighty No. 9, Inafune has been careful to stress that the game is not a Mega Man game, even though the two look an awful lot alike, because Capcom retained the rights to that franchise after his departure. But not having those rights is not all bad news.
“If Capcom came to me and gave me the rights or wanted to sell me the rights [to Mega Man], I’d definitely consider it, but it’s not something that I can decide,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons for creating Mighty No. 9. We want to have our own content. … Mighty No. 9 won’t suffer the same fate as some of the past series have.”
Plus, starting fresh with a new character and brand frees Inafune a bit to experiment in as-yet-undisclosed ways with the Mega Man platformer formula.
“If we were going to make a new Mega Man, fans might say, ‘Oh, that’s not how it should work!’ and wouldn’t be pleased with it,” he said. “Since Mighty No. 9 is new IP, there’s definitely a lot of things that we can do and a lot of new things that we are currently doing.”
Inafune does not play many games in his free time, since he plays so many for work. But he is aware of the vast catalog of unofficial Mega Man games made by fans.
“I have seen a lot of them and played a very little bit of some of them,” Inafune said. “A lot don’t really have the completion you’d expect from a consumer game or a big title but you can see the love that fans have for the series and the effect that Mega Man and games like that have had on these people. That part really makes me happy.”
Nostalgia, he acknowledges, definitely had a role in Mighty No. 9’s crowdfunding campaign — it met its minimum Kickstarter goal of $900,000 within days of launching at PAX Prime in Seattle last year. He said one of the advantages of the online community fostered by crowdfunding is that spin-off products like the live-action adaptation in the works from Contradiction Films are easier to justify.
“Usually, with most games, you need to wait for the game to become a hit title before you can start looking into live-actions or animations or whatever,” Inafune said. “In this case, one of the best parts of using Kickstarter was that the information already came out. In a manner of speaking, it’s already a hit.”