Tango Gameworks: A Decade Later
It took more than 10 years, but Shinji Mikami says his original vision for Tango Gameworks is finally coming to life.
Mikami established Tango in 2010 after nearly two decades at Capcom, directing games like Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4, and a few years contracting for Platinum Games, where he directed Vanquish. His vision: give younger developers a chance to direct their own games and provide opportunities they might not get at other companies. Or, more bluntly, as he told Polygon in 2014, let people under 40 direct games.
“If you’re over 40, you’re somewhat out of touch with the people buying your games,” Mikami told the outlet, “and when you’re young, you don’t know enough about the industry. When you’re in your 30s, you have the right balance – you’re energetic and have your ego and can focus without distractions, but you have enough experience to manage people and know the business.”
Charitably, it actually took seven years for Mikami’s vision to become real, marked by the release of The Evil Within 2 in 2017, directed by John Johanas. More cynically, and if you’re Mikami himself – now 56 – it took 12 years. Nevertheless, as he sees it, Tango’s here now. And its latest game, Ghostwire: Tokyo, is a line in the sand.
Early in Tango’s history, Mikami gave many interviews about his vision. But at the time, it was just that: a vision. Somewhat speculative and certainly unproven. However, in the run-up to Ghostwire’s release, and with the advantage of 12 years of hindsight, we decided to revisit Tango’s mission statement. Talking to three higher-ups within the company – Mikami, producer Masato Kimura, and Ghostwire director Kinji Kimura – we learned how Tango finally got here and what it plans to do next.
Funding the Dream
As noble as his intentions may have been when founding Tango, Mikami directed the studio’s debut project, the survival horror game The Evil Within, released in 2014.
Mikami will be the first to tell you he still likes directing games. But he’ll also tell you that in the case of The Evil Within, him sitting in the director’s chair had less to do with a personal investment in the project and more to do with business.
“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but I did need to be the director in order to manage the completely new team under this new studio,” he tells Game Informer via a translator. “And also, there was this thinking where I probably needed to be the director in order for the funding to come in.”
Even though the game was marketed as his return to survival horror, a genre he helped invent and popularize with the first Resident Evil, Mikami spent his post-Capcom, pre-Tango years turning down proposals for new horror titles. Even in the case of The Evil Within, Mikami tells us, “at the time, yeah, if there was a chance not to work on a horror game, then maybe I would’ve considered that.”
“It’s not bad,” he adds. “It’s just; I wish I could’ve raised the quality a little bit more.”
After The Evil Within, John Johanas was the first new director within Tango to get the chance to lead a project – at least that we’ve heard. How he got it is a bit unorthodox. Johanas joined Tango in August 2010, shortly after the company was founded. Before joining, he was an English teacher for Japan’s JET Program, a government program built to teach foreign languages in Japan (and a common way for people to get working visas to move to the country).
Johanas translated a “huge” Japanese novel into English as part of his application process, gifting it to the studio head. Mikami was surprised, but admits he wasn’t interested in Johanas being an English teacher. Not to mention, he doesn’t read the language. Nevertheless, Johanas got the job. “[I] saw there was passion in his eyes,” Mikami says.
Johannes spent his first three or four years creating game design documents and then levels for The Evil Within. When Tango had an opportunity to develop DLC, director duty went to Johanas, who led development on “The Consequence” and “The Assignment,” both released in 2015. Then he directed an entire game: The Evil Within 2, which was critically well-received if not successful commercially.
Johanas is already working on his next game as director, marking the first developer at the studio publicly announced as director of more than one project. “He’s entering his prime,” Masato says.
But Johanas is certainly not the most recognizable name from Mikami’s stable of new directors. That would be Ikumi Nakamura. But it’s complicated. And ropes in Tango’s latest director, Kinji Kimura.
On paper, Nakamura seems like the ideal director for Mikami’s vision. By the time she got to Tango, she’d had a long career in the game industry – also at Capcom and Platinum, though she didn’t work directly with Mikami – helping develop the extremely well-liked Ōkami at the former and Bayonetta at the latter. According to Mikami, based on her work as a concept artist on The Evil Within, Nakamura’s talent was “above and beyond” other developers. “The next step for her was definitely to be the director,” he says.
His instincts were correct – and then some.
At E3 2019, Nakamura announced her directorial debut, Ghostwire: Tokyo, during Bethesda’s press conference. Almost instantly, she became an internet celebrity due largely to her endearing speech. It made Nakamura one of the more-recognizable game developers in recent years, and it also put her new project on people’s radar. “Considering the game industry at the time, it was pretty clear that if she were to come on stage as a creative director, she would become very popular at a speed much faster than anyone else,” Mikami says.
Again, his instincts were correct, but fate had other plans. In September 2019, Nakamura left Tango Gameworks, two years before it wrapped work on Ghostwire.
Nakamura’s departure is complicated and something we spoke to her in-depth about in 2021. Alongside the health issues she was experiencing, Nakamura struggled under the pressure of developer-publisher relationships; she didn’t like the stress of Bethesda, Tango’s parent company, having complete control over her project.
“I was a creative director, so this is literally my baby,” Nakamura told us. “My four-year-old baby. So, to let that go – ask any mother to let her baby go. It was that gut-ripping.”
As to be expected, the Tango employees we talked to wish Nakamura the best in her career; she’s listed in the “Special Thanks” portion of Ghostwire’s credits. Shortly before the release of her former project, Nakamura formally announced her new independent studio, Unseen, marking the next stage in her career. “She made the world and art for Ghostwire, and we very much appreciate the work that she’s done,” Mikami says.
Kinji Kimura, who began on Ghostwire as a game designer, took Nakaura’s place. With his new job came a learning curve. Kinji is quick to point to Mikami as a mentor, especially when it comes to how to direct a video game. That’s not to say Mikami isn’t also taking lessons from his younger staff.
Getting Bored, Powerfully
If there’s one thing that comes up repeatedly in our interviews with Tango, it’s the idea of the customer experience. And almost every time it’s brought up by Masato and Kinji, they immediately point back to Mikami.
“His mentality goes far deeper in regards to customer experience than everybody else probably thinks,” Kinji says. “That has been a very big learning experience for me.”
According to Masato, in his current role within Tango as executive producer, Mikami pulls back on projects. He stays in the background; he’s a few steps behind, watching over things.
However, Mikami has a lot of experience directing video games – a few of them considered the best, or at least most influential, of all time. Even if he isn’t currently in the director’s chair, that experience isn’t going to waste; it’s passed down to a newer generation.
On Ghostwire, Kinji says Mikami was instrumental in teaching him how to focus on the customer experience, be “adamant” about achieving quality, and deal with the stresses of being a director. He also learned when to throw out ideas.
“I’ve learned about the responsibilities of what we need to focus on,” Kinji says. “Sometimes that’s a very difficult decision to make, but it’s all in [service] of trying to hone down on the customer experience.”
Mikami says he chose Kinji to take over Ghostwire due to his ability to process and understand complex information. He was passionate about making a good game, too, which helps. Lastly, Mikami says he has a strong and healthy mental mindset, which is something he looks for in directors.
Now that he’s had a chance to see two of his directors successfully ship games, Mikami says he’s also learned from the younger members of his staff. The easy answer is learning how to work more efficiently from home, a symptom of the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic. But also a surprising answer: Mikami says he’s learning how to be more selfish.
“It’s probably more of a reminder,” he says. “But as I get to this age, it gets harder and harder to be selfish about what I want to make.”
Which begs the question: does Mikami see himself directing another game? Yes. He’s said as much in other interviews, recently telling VG247 that he wants to make “at least” one more game. He tells us, though, it will probably be more than one.
“I think it would be plural,” Mikami says. “I’m not thinking about when to actually stop, or making the last [game]. I probably would not be able to just stop.”
“I’ve been working with Mikami-san for a very long time,” Masato follows up. “I can tell you that he is probably going to be making something for the rest of his life.”
When Mikami returns as director, time will tell. Masato told VG247 in the same interview mentioned above that Mikami will not lead Tango’s next game. That might be Johanas’ new project, which Mikami recently told Weekly Famitsu (via Video Games Chronicle) is “the complete opposite of horror.”
Either way, 12 years after first establishing his vision, Mikami’s track record stands solid; two out of three isn’t a bad number. But Masato also sees this approach to game development as a unique advantage. Tango is doing things differently. And according to him, it all starts with Mikami, a man, he says, that gets bored easily.
“But in a very powerful way,” Masato says. “He wants to do something new all the time. He’s looking for something cool and new. It always starts with the idea; it always starts with the game plan, the plan for the game. If he has a good plan for a game, then he chooses a director for that plan. It’s always about the game and the game design. That comes first. That’s why you’ll see us being a little bit different from other studios. We do see that as an advantage.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 345 of Game Informer.