Shinji Mikami – 2000 Developer Interview
This interview with legendary Capcom creator Shinji Mikami originally appeared in the book "Capcom Denshi no Mouzatachi" published in 2000. The free-wheeling conversation explores the contrast between Mikami's approach to game design and that of Capcom veteran Yoshiki Okamoto, and also looks at marketing challenges and Mikami's conflicted feelings about his new role as a producer.
—I've been told that there was an unspoken understanding at Capcom about a development policy of "eliminating negatives", where the aim wasn't necessarily perfection, but rather getting something to a 70 or 80% level of satisfaction as the criteria for release. What are your thoughts on this style of game development?
Mikami: I didn't do that at all. I followed an opposite vector from Okamoto in that regard. The cornerstone of Yoshiki Okamoto's arcade game design philosophy was "satisfaction". Sometimes in a game you encounter something that really sucks, the kind of thing that makes you go "pffh… wtf is this?" When Okamoto encounters something like that, he will remove it, even if removing it means you also lose some of the game's strengths. That was his philosophy: remove the dissatisfying parts at all costs.
Now, for myself, when it comes to games I have very pronounced tastes and preferences. I'm the same way with food. I can't eat things I don't like, and I get hives and my stomach is easily upset. Having this disposition, it's only natural to have strong feelings about what one loves and hates, but that's exactly why I can't help but have a "warts and all" approach to creating products, I think.
Furthermore, we're living today in a world of information overload. Over 1000 games come out a year, and hardly anyone will buy 100 or 200 games a year. The average person buys what, maybe 5 or 6 games? Even someone who buys "a lot" of games probably only buys 10 or so. If you ask why they bought those specific games, I think one big reason is that something in that game spoke to them—it felt like that game was made just for them. Other than that, the only other reason I can think of would be when a friend recommends it and says its good.
—There's probably a lot of people who buy Final Fantasy just to see what the buzz is all about. If they don't get on the hype train, they know they'll be left behind.
Mikami: Yeah. I think there's probably an element of that at play. Looking at the Playstation market, if there's 12 million people, and you sell your game to 1/10 of them, that's 1.2 million sales, right? Not bad. It seems like it can't be that hard to make a game that 1 out of 10 people will like...?
That said, some of Sony's weirder hit games, a lot of them were really boring to me when I played them. The actual game content is too basic, I feel. Anyway, I've been thinking about these things for a reallyyy long time—that issue of how far a developer's personal tastes and idiosyncrasies should factor into game development. When I see those quirky game devs, part of me kind of groans and wants to say hey… you're just foisting your own hobbies and interests on everyone, how did you manage to get paid for that?! (laughs) Though lately I've started to feel like it's not something worth thinking that deeply about.
—Yeah, as a player, nobody is going to know the exact extent of the developer's interests, or where it crossed the line into self-indulgence.
Mikami: No, they can't know that. There is another danger though: if you're investing your work with too much of your own personal judgment, at the expense of other things, then the marketing vision for that product will only exist in that person's head, and if they leave the company, the company won't know how to market their game.
—The story of Okamoto getting angry at you when you were making Resident Evil has become something of a legend now, but had you spoken with him much before that? About Resident Evil, or anything.
Mikami: Not at all. It was two years after I'd been hired that I first heard about Okamoto's design philosophy: "a single flaw in a game will stand out above ten virtues, so I make sure each and every flaw is removed." That may be true, but I think it's also true that if your staff isn't satisfied with their work, they won't be able to keep it up for long. If you're just working at an office then, yes, there's an element of necessity that will drive you, but creative work requires the libido. I think if you sever that, people won't be able to give you their 100% even if they try to.
—Something you also see are games where the underlying concept and idea are really great, but the controls and display system aren't very friendly. In those cases, though users do complain about those flaws, they still end up enjoying the game for its strengths.
Mikami: It's a matter of degree, of course. For Resident Evil's controls, I I had always intended to improve and fix them someday. However, what happened was the game blew up in popularity before I had that chance. And then, because people had become used to those controls, if I went and changed them it would make people angry. That's something you have to avoid, too.
—And yet somehow, those bad controls... how should I put it...
Mikami: Yes, they ended up making the game more popular.
—They acted as a kind of restriction that people enjoyed. Restrictions have become an irrevocable part of gameplay.
Mikami: Yeah. I think that's something we should re-consider, and it wasn't intentional. I wince when people tell me that the poor controls in Resident Evil helped contribute to the sense of dread and horror… because that wasn't my intention. It was kind of embarrassing, and when journalists would ask me questions like "How does it feel to sell a million copies?!", my honest feeling was, "Well, not that great." And the more interviews I did, the more depressed I got. As a creator, putting my work out into the world was it's own reward.
As a commercial product, I think games lack what we might call "transparency" for the buyer. If it's an arcade game, you can insert a 100 yen coin and decide then-and-there whether this is something you want to continue playing, but console games cost, what… fifty-eight 100-yen coins? And if the game sucks, you can't return it. There are demo discs, but overall, we still don't have a great system in place for the end-user to discern whether this game is going to be one they'll enjoy. The director role can alleviate this, I think, by acting as a kind of signpost to explain what's what. If you see their face and recognize them, it's like… "Oh, ok, this is a Mikami game. I like his work." And that will make it easier for the player to pick-and-choose.
The other interesting thing is word-of-mouth. How many people do you suppose it takes for a person to think, "Everyone says this game is great!"
—I bet it's probably just two other people.
Mikami: Exactly. It's two people. It takes you and two other people (three total) to form that mental notion of "everyone". That's common sense today. It's surprisingly effective, you see. If you can grab even a couple people's attention, it's not hard to reach two or three people. I think word-of-mouth is a very effective form of promotion.
—In that sense, interviews like this are both journalism and promotion.
Mikami: It's very important that the creator gets his face and name out there, I think.
—I have two simple questions for you now. First... how do you define a "game"?
Mikami: Fun to watch, fun to play. If you have both those, I guess that suffices for the simple definition of a game. If the question, though, is what games have that distinguishes them from other media, it would be interactivity. A game is only half-complete when the developer finishes it; the user "completes" the other half by playing it. Making games isn't a one-way street, is what I'm trying to say.
The other unique thing to games is unpredictability. After you watch a movie at the theatre, normally you just walk out of the theatre and that's that. But with games, even after you beat it, there's a big element of not knowing what will come next. Movies and other media can do this too, of course, but in games, that possibility is always there—the possibility of the unexpected. I think those elements taken together—unpredictability and interactivity—could suffice to define "game"… I don't want to confine games with a narrow definition. We should stop allowing ourselves to be constrained by these old, outdated concepts like "role-playing", "shooting", "action". So if it doesn't have anything of what I've described just now, then it's not a game.
—And why do you make games, Mikami?
Mikami: When I ask myself that question, one answer that comes to mind is that I want to affirm my existence. Another reason would be that a creative environment is a very beneficial thing for personal growth as a human being. But the third reason, and this may be the most deeply-rooted of them all, is that I have an inferiority complex. Making games, for me, is a way to sublimate that, and at the same time, show that while I have this complex, there's also things I do excel at. That's the gist of it.
If I dare go further… there's also a part of me that wants to see games recognized by society too. Everytime there's some horrible incident in the news it gets blamed on video games. I don't want to just abandon games to that fate. For that reason, though I still consider satisfaction to be very important, I also want there to be an extra something, a "personal signature" if you will. But I haven't felt that much in video games yet, and when I have, the player satisfaction side has been sacrificed—it's navel-gazing. In porn terms it's the equivalent of a facial. 1
—Right. Games can't just be a commercial service, nor should they be masturbatory indulgence of the creator. Though, at the core, I suppose they are ultimately a personal creative act, whether we're talking about self-expression or personal growth. Do you feel like a sense of responsibility emerges in the course of your work, as well?
Mikami: Since I've become a producer, yes, it's ever-present. In fact, the bulk of my concerns these days is pointed in that direction. A sense of responsibility, of duty. I think for older guys like us that's very common. It's rough my friend. (laughs) There's times when I stop and ask myself… do I even enjoy this anymore? Is it making me happy? I have a colleague, Kawano-san,2 who's been making a Mega Man style game, and I'm envious. That looks really fun to me. It seems right. I look at him and think, "Man, he doesn't know how lucky he is." I mean, if your grandfather died and you had to go to his funeral, and at the next desk over your colleague was there yukking it up and having a grand old time, that'd piss you off, right?! (laughs)
I don't know, maybe I'm just too sensitive to what others say. The truth is, when you're no longer working in the trenches with everyone, your sensibilities get dull. You lose the feel. It's like the old grandma at the local candy shop… she's been doing the job for so long, she knows instinctively how much candy is 100 grams, just by feel alone. You do something long enough and it becomes second nature. But if you stop doing actual development work for long enough, the opposite occurs. Your senses get dull. I can feel it happening to me. My judgment is getting slower…
This year I've been thinking about going back to the trenches in some form. I haven't felt like there's a creative outlet for me in my current role. What would be best, I think, would be if there was a creative team that was way better than me. If I could confirm, with my own two eyes, that they had the chops, then I think I could be satisfied with doing all I could to help them reach their full potential. Which is not to say I dislike the people I'm working with now, of course.
—Isn't there a career path for you from producer?
Mikami: You know… yeah. That's actually something I have to think very seriously now. Like, right now. One thing people often do after producing is become the president of their own company. I might have the temperment for that. Well, to be honest, I just don't know yet what's next for me.
—Hideki Kamiya, Kazuhiro Aoyama, and Hiroki Katou were all planners on the first Resident Evil, and each went on to direct one of the sequels. Do you feel like you had a part in raising them?
Mikami: No… if anything, their development has been somewhat arrested, and I bear the responsibility for that. I'm deeply sorry for not being able to create a good working environment for them. Making games is a bit like screenplay writing, in that rather than working obsessively on a single screenplay over two years, it's better for the growth and development of your skills to work on multiple projects at a time. A big-name series like Resident Evil, with such a long development span, honestly isn't that great for building a team's skills.
—When you talk about games, one theme that often emerges is the idea that players aren't stupid, that we shouldn't treat them as if they're dumb. Would you agree with that?
Mikami: I think that comes down to the question of how you view what "a person" means, their value. It's simple stuff, but people, objects, and money—what weight do you assign those, and what do you think their causal relationship is? How you answer that is deeply tied into marketing, I suppose. Marketing isn't just about data, nor is it about the collective opinion of the masses. At the root of a marketing campaign there is a single individual person, and I think marketing should return to that principle as its starting point. From there you can start talking with other individuals, gradually expanding your research outwards. Again, I'm not talking about reading and collecting data: it's much more about intuition. What you can sniff out. It's like a drug-sniffing dog, it's something you just feel. I don't think marketing is very effective when it doesn't have that element of subjectivity.
—Yeah. When the Sakakibara Murders were under investigation, I remember how an ex-FBI profiler from America wrote an article and concluded "the killer is an adult." He was totally wrong. Japan's environment and demographics are different from America, so it only makes sense that his profiling methods wouldn't work here. You had to think like Seito Sakakibara to solve that crime. It only makes sense.
Mikami: It takes a certain sensibility, a receptivity. I think it's a question of your personal character really. Whether you have that abiding interest in the things and people around you or not.
You know, when I ask people for their opinions, they often say to me, "Why are you even asking me? You've already made up your mind, haven't you!" To which I reply, "Yes, I've decided this is the right answer. I'm only asking you to see if I might be wrong." Sometimes, when I ask people around the office for their opinion about something, it's very divided, with everyone having their own ideas. In those situations, I try to find the guy with the most "average" sensibilities—the greatest common denominator, if you will—and see what they think. Then I collect evidence from about ten other people, and you know what I find? Interestingly enough, their opinions pretty much line up with Mr. Average.
In my opinion, this is an example of the basic way marketing should proceed: if you just look at the macro, the data is hard to interpret, so only by returning to the level of the individual will you reach the right answer. Doing this at Capcom, however, there's a danger. We're such an exclusive little tribe, so our ideas about things are very particular and slanted. And that's no good for marketing. What I would like to do, is start hiring some people with more "everyday" sensibilities, even if they're not very knowledgeable about games.
Bringing people like that on board, though, is problematic… it's like trying to invite a non-smoker into a smoking room. As soon as they enter, the smoke will irritate their eyes and lungs and they'll want to leave immediately. Ultimately I can't deny that our development office is like that. So I think the only solution is to bring onboard a very strong individual, someone who can say, "Yes, I don't like cigarette smoke, but I'll endure it." But that's not an easy person to find.
—I'd like to end our conversation today with a question about Resident Evil. As almost half of Capcom's sales this quarter were owed to Resident Evil and similarly-styled games, it appears that Capcom will increasingly be relying on this series... the home console sales, at least. This seems to be a pattern in the games industry not unique to Capcom, that whenever a company has a big hit, they will turn it into a franchise series and live off those sales for many years. What do you think of this? Do you think it's healthy for a company to survive this way?
Mikami: I think the way management and admin see it, is that even if a sequel isn't a smash hit, it will at least be a modest success. And there's very little chance that it will be a total failure. That's the perspective of management… you've got an entire company to support, you know.
On the other hand, ask yourself this: how likely is it that another "divine wind" will blow through Capcom and produce a hit on the same level as Resident Evil? In terms of raw percentages, I think it's exceedingly unlikely. Over 1000 games are released in any given year, and only two or three of those will be big hits that sell over 1 million copies.
Even for a company that can field twenty or thirty developments in a year, those aren't good betting odds. Maybe, in the span of four or five years, you can be hopeful for a single game to reach that level. But even that is iffy, so if you are blessed with a hit game, converting that hit into long-term stable profits doesn't necessarily seem wrong to me.
The important thing, however, is while you're doing that, to also understand that one day the well will eventually dry up. We experienced that pain with Street Fighter II, so it's something we know very well at Capcom, or should… and while Resident Evil is the new "lucky horse" for us now, as a manager myself I think we need to also give opportunities for new staff to create that next big hit. It's a two-pronged approach, really—you've got to do both.
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