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Platinum Games’ Atsushi Inaba Talks Style, Substance, And Indie Strategy

by Keenan McCall on Dec 27, 2017 at 05:00 PM

Over the course of a decade, Platinum Games has established itself as a developer capable of bringing style and fast-paced gameplay to most any property. While there have been some stumbles along the way – namely the cancellation of the highly anticipated Scalebound in January – the company continues to steam ahead toward new projects and endeavors. Atsushi Inaba, head of development and a producer at Platinum, sat down with us to talk about some of these future plans, as well as what defines the studio in terms of design and structure.

When I look at all your games, it seems they’re all very stylish. And you said smooth, which I thought was an interesting description. But I’m curious if you think that’s an important thing for video games to be, and why you think that might be.
Atsushi Inaba: I wouldn’t actually say “stylish” is necessarily in our DNA, but it certainly conjures up the idea of smooth controls, pretty art that pops, something that sticks out and has a unique visual footprint, etc. It’s nice to be thought of that way. And ultimately for us as an independent developer, we’ve just naturally grown into being able to focus on that sort of gameplay. Probably it is in how we develop games. Even with our independent game that we’re going to do, the engine has been built out in a way so that programmers can work with animators very smoothly, and a lot of times that’s what helps smooth the nature of the controls, the action being on pace, etc. And so we’ve planned on that in advance to make sure it can be in the final product.

Do you have just a huge development team or are you guys structured in a way that allows you guys to take on more work than a traditional studio?
We’re about 200 people, including some of the external partners we use. But probably, at the end of the day, we do more projects at the same time than a traditional Western studio might. With 200 people at a Western studio, maybe you’re doing two games at once, maybe three, but sometimes only one even with that sort of head count. And that’s because we’re selfish and we want to do a lot of stuff.

Looking at Platinum’s history, all the games you’ve put out, what do you think is the core through line for all those? What do you think defines what you guys do? What makes your games special?
Most of our games have really smooth interfaces. You can control the action without a lot of stress. The combos that you link together, they link together seamlessly in the right way and it just makes sense. But if I was really going to list one thing that ties those games together, that makes Platinum Games unique, it would have to be that every time we come up with a design idea, a game idea, it’s based on something original, new. It’s not copying some trend that we see and then adding a plus one to it, which a lot of developers you sometimes see do. It is us building up something new that people probably haven’t seen before from the ground up.

A couple years ago you guys did a Transformers game, which was kind of surprising. I’m curious as to how that game came about.
That was initially a project brought to us by Activision. And every time we determine whether you’re going to do a work-for-hire project or work on somebody else’s IP, we like to feel that we’re going to be motivated by it.  Either it’s going to be fit our schedule or financially something that makes sense and certainly that we know it, or there are people internally that like it. And honestly in the games industry there’s a lot of people that like Transformers. It’s a cool IP. There’s no doubt about it. But what they really got us with was when they came over and said, “How about we do generation one Transformers, the original.” And there’s lots of older developers here in their late 30s or early 40s that grew up watching the Transformers. And so that was when everybody was like, “Yes! We really want to do it.” So it was a no-brainer from that point.

It seems like microtransactions are a pretty hot topic these days and a lot of people are saying single-player focused adventures are maybe going away because of that. Do you think it’s still a viable game genre to make?
We feel that we can add in the right pieces, whether it’s multiplayer or something else. Honestly, microtransactions are a whole different hornet’s nest to consider, and I’m not saying that that business model doesn’t have its place, but I do feel that it’s a different issue rather than whether games are multiplayer and more expansive versus a single-player story-driven action game. But, honestly, when you design games they need to be designed with those sorts of modes from the beginning. That needs to be a core piece of it. And a lot of these games that have multiplayer in them, obviously it’s just been tacked on because the publisher has felt it was necessary. So we feel that we can definitely design those sorts of games – strong multiplayer experiences and whatnot – but it has to be done from the beginning. It can’t be the core fun of the game is a single-player experience and then I’ve just added this extra mode on because that doesn’t work out really well in any game. 

So what has Platinum been focusing on lately?
One of the things Platinum is focused on is we’re looking into creating our own IP, creating our own game. Up until now, obviously we’ve worked on original IPs for a wide variety of publishers. We’ve also worked on other Hollywood IPs for other publishers as well. But we’re becoming more and more interested in the idea of self-publishing and doing our own title.

So how would that look? What would that process look like for you guys?
Over the last year we’ve pretty much opened the company up to “Anybody can pitch a game,” and so over the last year we’ve gotten about 70 design documents from different people. And if you’re going list out the other random ideas, the scratched stuff on paper, that’s a hell of a lot more. So this year has been about us basically diluting which stuff we wanted to focus on and not focus on, and drilling down to the point where we now have two designs that we’re genuinely focused on.

Are those all ideas for bigger games, or do you guys kind of look at what the indie space is doing? Are you thinking about doing a small, indie-style game?
We can’t put together a AAA, $10 million-plus game, because we just don’t have that sort of cash as an independent developer. However, we don’t plan to go the indies route with just a few people on a team making a game, so it’ll be somewhere in the middle, looking at probably about 20 people on the staff making the game, so that’ll still be a healthy [size].

Are you guys looking at what people are doing elsewhere in Japan, or anywhere in the West, for examples of what those kinds of games could look like?
Rather than looking at other companies and how they’ve done it, for us the reason we want to do it is we want to motivate the people that work here. We want to give them an opportunity to make their own game. That being said, if you’re going to put 20 people on the development, it has to be something that’s on brand and on topic, and obviously when people think of the Platinum Games brand, they expect crazy hardcore action, right? That’s what they’re looking for. And so we have to be reticent of that. We want to surprise them by the fact that we’re doing this independent title and hopefully get support from the fanbase. But we don’t want to surprise them by, say, doing a princess-clothing-making game or something like that. It would totally not be what people want from Platinum Games.

I would be interested to see what you guys did with a princess-clothing game.
You know, as we got down to the selection process, there was actually a game that was kind of in that direction, but when we made the final round picks, it was just like, yeah, this one’s not going do it [laughs].

Does this change your direction for releasing big AAA games? If you’re going to self-publish, does it affect your relationship with other publishers as well?
First off, we will continue to do AAA games for other publishers and that’s because, again, we don’t have the cash flow to take on the risk to only do self-published games. In order to do a AAA title with that amount of risk, you need to be with a big company, a publisher so to speak. We don’t think that us doing self-published titles, just based on the scope and scale of what they are, is going to interfere with relationships with other publishers because, again, the style and the size and scope of games that we do with them is going to be much bigger compared to this to the point where they realize we’re not really competing in the same markets.

Doing something on our own, self-publishing it, releasing it, all of that is a challenge for us, but right now everybody is incredibly motivated and working on that. So all the fans, anybody who looks at the website or reads the magazine, look forward to something cool in the future from Platinum.