"I first came here, to Brighton, to meet the musician Adam Freeland. That was 1998. I explained to him the idea of Rez. He decided to join the project. Wow. That's almost 20 years ago."
Tetsuya Mizuguchi swallows the last of his lunch and peers out the window, onto the beach and the English Channel beyond. It's sparkling today on the British south coast. Twenty-four hours ago, not so much—but the sun's out for the Japanese developer's arrival at Develop Conference, held in the bustling seaside city's Hilton hotel.
Earlier, he was on stage, in conversation with Edge editor Nathan Brown, unpicking his career and where he wants to take it next. I miss the keynote as I'm interviewing someone else—in the same building, a few floors up, more to come on that soon—at the time, but what Mizuguchi's done in the past is well documented already.
He first made his name with Sega racers for the arcades, producing Sega Rally and its sequel, and Manx TT Superbike. Then came music, with Space Channel 5, the Lumines series, and most famously Rez—the techno-driven rail-shooter where seeing the beats was as big as part of the experience as hearing them (and, naturally, blasting them). The intent then: to create a sense of synesthesia in the player.
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Rez really found its final form a full 15 years after its original release, though, when it emerged as a PlayStation VR launch title under the name Rez Infinite. What you got was the same game, in a way, albeit now as a full 360-degree audio-visual experience; and an all-new stage, the off-rails, float-anywhere "Area X," which is as close as anything on VR has come to legitimately blowing my mind. You can read more about Rez Infinite and "Area X" in our The Pick-Me-Up series.
Now, Mizuguchi's working on something new, something (he says) better than "Area X," something he's not actually prepared to discuss publically just yet. He set up his own studio, Enhance Games, in 2014, and it was there that he guided Infinite to how he imagined it so many years earlier. He's dreaming big when it comes to VR—and he is determined, as he goes on to tell me, to create magic.
Rez Infinite, and its additional "Area X," was one of the main reasons to pick up PlayStation VR at launch. Could you have been any happier with how that new version of the game, and that new stage, was received?
Tetsuya Mizuguchi: In my head, in my imagination, Rez was always a VR game, from the start, from the original in 2001. We needed to squeeze and trim it, to make it a 2D game. But imagination isn't like that. I think Rez in VR is very natural, and that's a big reason why it was a success.
Also, I was always thinking about what VR game I would make in the future, what the future of Rez might be. So it was easy to move to VR. And with "Area X," I knew that we had to be free, released from being a rail shooter. Some people in my team, they were worried about players getting sick when playing it; but I had confidence that we'd be able to deliver this really good, feel-good experience. If we couldn't do that, we couldn't possibly start thinking about the future of VR. So yes, it was a good result.
People, players, were genuinely moved by playing "Area X." When it comes to designing games, experiences, are you focused on what the player impression is, what they take away from it, as much as actually ensuring the mechanics of the game operate? Are you more into, I suppose, the feel of a game, rather than the moment-to-moment movement, and how those movements are implemented?
That's a good question. I think that side of games, that feel that people have for them and take away from them, is getting better. Twenty years ago, when I was working on racing games, I couldn't imagine in that way—I couldn't think about how these games could impact the players in an emotional way. Then I jumped into music, and those ideas, and the imagination there, that was a long journey—and during it, we tried lots of things, building and scrapping things many times. I learned a lot in the process, through trial and error, in working towards these games being more than just pressing buttons to do things. Now, I think I'm in the best condition, the best position, to be able to realize what I want people to get out of games. And I'm very, very happy.
To make games, is a most wonderful thing. And it's not just being a games designer—you're a human experience designer, right? So, the game designers of today, they've grown a lot—and with that comes better and better experiences. So my next game, it'll be better than "Area X"—well, I hope so!
Technology is expanding in all directions—haptic, VR, sensors, audio, although we've nearly gone as far as we can with audio in games, I think. So there's no limit now. I don't think there is, anyway. I'm always thinking: what is the future gaming experience? A long time ago there were no colors, just dots on a screen, bleep sounds. Now, we can express so much more, combining so many elements, and it's possible, genuinely, to move people.
We can put a story in there, as an experience; but there are other dimensions too, to consider. "Area X" was a kind of experiment, to me, to see what we can do at that next level. And it was a really good experiment. We found we could move people, with music and 3D visuals, and synesthesia. Seeing the sound, that's something we couldn't do this way, before. We can't taste it just yet. Maybe in the future.
"I have no interest in making things just look realistic—I want to make magic!"
Does that all feed into a personal philosophy, for you, where making games is all about the takeaway, and how it fires up the player's emotions and imagination? Rather than, I suppose: this thing has to look a certain way, because video games are hyper-realistic now. I'm guessing here, based on your recent work, but I don't think you're too bothered about realism in your games. You quite deliberately want to take players out of the "real world."
I have no interest in making things just look realistic—I want to make magic! And I'm not there yet—technology isn't there yet. But that's what I want, to create magic. And that's not to mean that something appears real, but that it's a real fantasy. It's boring to create things that you can see in the real world. So the big reason I left arcade racing games behind, is because the future of that genre was always to move towards the real thing—to get games closer to the experience of driving an actual car, with all of the engineering that comes with it. I want to create illusions, entertainment through new experiences, like Rez. Which again, means there are no limits.
Do you get that no limits feeling now, at least partially, because you're your own boss at Enhance, and there's nobody above you saying: no, you can't do that, we can't do that?
I'm free. If I want to make something, and I can get the budget to do it, I'm doing it. Ten years ago, I couldn't. Now, there are new ways to get finance, many ways. There's crowdfunding, of course. Also, we can self-publish. It's easy to do that, digitally. We have amazing technology like Unreal and Unity, development engines. So it's getting possible to do everything.
Ten years ago, no chance. There were only a few big companies who had the controls to the games, the access to the market. We all needed to "belong" to them. But now, everyone is getting freer, and more independent. And that's really healthy.
Do you feel that the industry is healthier now than its been, in your experience of it, given you've been making games since the 1990s?
There's definitely a new ecosystem, and that's made me very, very happy. There are many platforms, including mobile, PC, console, and each has the VR element. It's like a cosmos, expanding.
Are you confident that VR is going to be a significant platform, a mainstream one, going forward—more than a novelty add-on for existing systems?
Yes, but I'm waiting for the next era of VR. We're just at the gates, right now. We're learning a lot, and we will over the next five years. It really feels like we're just preparing at the moment. The equipment needs to change, it needs to get easier to use, smaller maybe. And in ten years? Our lifestyles will likely have changed, dramatically, by then. Driverless cars, for example, are going to happen—when you just don't touch the steering anymore. Car life is going to change, and we could well end up with headsets in cars. Maybe you work in your car, you have meetings, you play games.
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But sometimes, driving the car is fun, isn't it? Stepping on the gas, feeling it vibrate, hearing the engine. So that's surely worth remembering—however far we go with immersion in entertainment, with virtual reality or anything else, if we lose why we're doing it, that's a problem.
I agree with that. We have these two aspects, as humans, in our entertainment, in our interactions—active, and passive. And this is a part of game design—we're working on active and passive elements all the time. And interactive, of course. We want to drive sometimes, for fun; but also, sometimes we don't want that, and we'll want to use that time for something else. But it'd be good to not have accidents anymore, to have a car with all of these sensors, the technology, to stop.
To go back to VR, though, there's a great human want to communicate, and how we do that in VR could be really powerful. And I extend that to AR, too. The games will change, and I have a lot of ideas on how they will change. But we do need the technology to improve. Not only in terms of VR resolution, but in terms of what we're wearing, and how it connects to other people in virtual and physical spaces, and in AR space.
Do you always feel that your ideas are slightly ahead of where technology is at, at the time you have them? Thinking back to wanting, to "seeing," Rez in 3D?
Yeah! Maybe I'm a technologist. Maybe I'm a dreamer. I'm certainly dreaming of a positive future with technology. Some people might look at me as an optimist, but yes, I suppose I am. One of our missions as developers is always to create the new thing, in a positive sense, and projecting into a positive future.