Robotic to the 'ReCore': An Interview with Mega Man Creator Keiji Inafune

The Japanese game designer tells us about 'ReCore,' 'Mighty No. 9,' his Capcom past, and his love for robots.

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Jul 2 2015, 7:45pm

A screen shot from the E3 2015 trailer for 'ReCore'

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Few know much about ReCore right now. A complete surprise (to me anyway) following the bombastic Halo 5 demo that opened Microsoft's E3 2015 press conference, the new game from Keiji Inafune and Austin, Texas–based Armature Studio didn't belabor in getting to its point; rather, the essence of this new sci-fi adventure was distilled into a quick teaser.

No gameplay was on display—as is now standard practice in Video Game Reveal Marketing 101—just a Pixar-like CG trailer starring a hardy female sand-warrior, a desert, some mean robots, and a sole friendly robot resembling a canine pal, at least until it sacrificed itself in a life-saving explosion that allowed the heroine to move the pup's blue core into the form of a larger proverbial iron giant.

Of course, Inafune's storied history at Capcom and the eclectic range of games he's put out with his own Japanese studio, Comcept, since 2012—some successful, some anything but—shows that he's capable of making whatever kind of game he likes. If the father of Mega Man (OK, co-creator), Onimusha, and the forthcoming Mighty No. 9, not to mention countless others, wants to make an exploratory adventure where you (I assume) interact with a cast of colorful robot characters in a presumably nonlinear-ish game about the relationships between man and machine, that sounds fine by me. (And if he's working with some of the folks who helped make Metroid Prime, so much the better.)

'ReCore,' E3 2015 trailer

What I do know is that not knowing much about ReCore itself (those glowing cores play a big role with your robot allies, I'm told) put me in an interesting position when interviewing Inafune in Los Angeles, though he's no less fascinating when talking about concepts and philosophy.

Sadly, my time with Inafune was all too brief. I wasn't able to follow up on his thoughts about Kickstarter and the somewhat murky ethics of, say, Yu Suzuki and Sony's tangled relationship with Shenmue III's funding. Still, Japanese games need creators like Inafune, who continuously preach the need for risk-taking and imaginative thought in a market that often struggles to find its footing in the modern era. Rest assured he had plenty to say about the state of Japan and that undying need for creativity.

VICE: From the little information I've been able to glean about ReCore, I know that it deals with the relationship between robots and man, and the kinds of emotional bonds that might be forged. Is there any particular story, thought, or event that inspired you to come up with this idea?
Keiji Inafune: So I guess there is a big theme that I've always sort of loved and craved and gravitated towards, and that is how to illustrate what we think of when we think of the end of humanity. And if you really think about it, aside from ReCore, when you watch zombie films, TV shows, or games, it is all about survival. And it is all about the potential of, OK, there are no more humans anymore, it's all "zombified." So [ReCore is] just a different way of expressing that theme—the same can be said about Lost Planet. I also love Mad Max.

There are many other things, if you think about it on a very high level and not just restrict it to sci-fi. There are ways to illustrate or tell that story in every project I work on. With ReCore, it's not going for a Dead Rising–type feel or tone, and it's not a Lost Planet–type feel or tone, either. It's just a different dimension, a different angle—a different take on that larger theme. So, that's something that's not new to me. I've always had very similar themes throughout a lot of the work that I've done, I think.

And what about the "humanity's end" theme is so fascinating to you? Why do you like it so much?
I'm going to draw a parallel to my personal life, my personal surroundings. When you think about the games industry, we could potentially reach a point where there is an "end of games." What I mean by that is this: If games makers and developers lose that sense that we are making something creative to entertain people, and all we want to do is basically get paid to make a game, then I feel like the spirit of game creation, why we make games, could all be lost. And that's what I mean by the idea that there could be an end to games, or gaming. I don't want that to happen, and I don't think anyone else here wants that to happen.

So even though we don't think about it probably, in our daily lives, there are so many things [that could point to an "end" of humanity], whether on a very personal level or on a very large scale, [like an] act of war or environmental destruction. In Japan, there's this whole societal problem with the population of people in the country over a certain age—it's looking lopsided. We don't have a lot of younger generations having kids, so Japan is going to turn into this country that's heavy on the elderly with a low population of youngsters. So there are all these things where, by just a simple act of human kindness or hostility, things could very drastically change in the future.

And so, filtering that all down, if you take when the movie Back to the Future was made, we were looking into the future. And now we've reached that year, 2015 (the future of Back to the Future II), we're trying to see if our sense of what the future might really be like is right or wrong. And then you see a list of problems, and it's like: oh shit, this stuff is actually really happening in real life.

Going back to ReCore and your question, I feel like my job as a game creator is to—in an exaggerated sense, but not negatively—illustrate what the world could be like in the form of entertainment, in the form of games. And so I've taken that as my job and my mission, to create a world where you could get a sense of what the future might be like. And telling a story of that. So I'm continuously attracted to that, and I take that as my own mission.

Since starting Comcept you've created a lot of different takes on this kind of idea, which all seem to circle thematically around your thoughts on the Japanese game industry. How have those varied experiences informed your approach for ReCore?
I've been making games for about 30 years now, but from the very beginning all the way up until this year, I think my basic approach to making games has really not changed. It's all about trying and learning, putting things out. And there are so many lessons that come from putting a game out. So I try to take the good, learn and improve on the bad, so to speak, and try to reflect as I go into my next project. That hasn't changed even since my Capcom days. There was a lot I learned at Capcom. And even though Comcept has only been around for a handful of years, there are plenty of things that we've already learned as an independent studio. So there's a multitude of things that go into the next creation. So we've grown, and along the way you gain that confidence to make that next step.

That being said, one thing that you can't really read or control is the market conditions, the climate of the user's demands and needs and desire. And to be able to slot yourself into that, it's like you have to be able to look into a crystal ball and know exactly what people want two years from now. So the harder part isn't picking and choosing from what I've learned and what I should do next—it's more about how that can sync with what we think people want to experience. That's actually the harder part. That's the hardest work that we have as craftsmen—and, you know, we call ourselves skilled in games making. We can be as technically-skilled as we want, but if we're either behind the curve or what people might say is way ahead of its time, then you don't get your fans to listen to you every step of the way. So you kind of have to look for that perfect range to jump into. And that's probably the hardest thing.

Where do you strike that balance between what people are interested in playing, and fan expectations, and what you want to make? You've already made a number of pretty varied games since leaving Capcom, and it doesn't seem like anyone, or anything really stops you from going forward with an original idea that you're interested in pursuing.
[Laughs] That's a good question. So, there's a big sort of simple but very important meaning, and reason, behind why I left Capcom and why our company is called Comcept, with an "M," which, phonetically in Japanese, is very much like "concept." We're a conceptual studio, an idea house. With confidence I can say why I left Capcom wasn't because I was kicked out, or because there were no other projects to work on. It was just me thinking that there was nothing left for me to do as a creative lead at that studio.

After I left it wouldn't be like me to get put in a position where I would form an independent studio that worked on externally sourced projects. The main reason why I left is because I wanted to continue challenging myself with new ideas and push those through, just like you said—and maybe not taking no for an answer has almost been a motto, too. So, I've declined pitches and offers to work on external ideas—working on sequels, working on licensed properties, and such.

Even if the money is great, and I know we are all attracted to that, what's more important for us is to challenge ourselves, and continue to do so. There's no guarantee that a challenge is going to reward us with great results—it could end badly, too. But regardless of which way it falls, the most important thing for me is that we have a motive to continue to challenge ourselves and create something new. So that, in and of itself, sort of defines us as creators and "conceptors," and that's why I'm where I am.

'Mighty No. 9,' Beat Them at Their Own Game, E3 2015 trailer.

So, what's your ideal situation of the game industry changing for the better? Is it just designers taking more risks, or is there more to it than that?
I'm going to preface this response by saying that it's limited to the Japanese market. I feel like there's hope, in the sense that there could one day be a very ideal game industry, or a healthy scenario in the business of games. And for me, from my own personal experience using Kickstarter to launch Mighty No. 9, I see the potential of creating games that way as one example. You know, if I had shopped Mighty No. 9 around to publishers, it would have been very tough. It would've been a lot of, "No, we don't see potential, you need a smaller budget, we want to take less risks," et cetera. Not going down that route, and using Kickstarter instead, what that allowed me to do was pitch an idea to people who want to play a game like that. Audiences aren't restricted to any territory, so fans and gamers from around the world pitched in. And now they feel like they're part of the project. Technically if you pledged above a certain tier you bought the product, but what you're investing in is a creator's creation because you're interested in it.

That's a shared experience amongst everyone involved—and they can feel that creation being made. And so I feel like I've been able to kind of plant the seed to somehow prove that these things can be done without getting doors shut in your face from publishers—people saying, "No, that's not a good business opportunity for us, so you can't make it."

That's not really an option for me. As long as I'm creating games I want to make them happen on my terms. And so after Mighty No. 9's success, more recently on Kickstarter you've seen Koji Igarashi and his Bloodstained project and Yu Suzuki's Shenmue III. So with the support and motivation of these people who crave these kinds of creations, I think I've helped realize [a new model of financing them]. And whether or not you call it a model, it's something that will hopefully help the industry become healthier, help it continue to grow, and hopefully bring back a healthier cycle for the business overall.

On Motherboard: Why Robots Need Ears

Finally, and a bit off-topic, you've said before how much you love robots, and your body of work certainly confirms that. Is that just a product of growing up within a culture of anime and manga? ReCore touches on the connection between humans and machines, so what do they mean to you, personally?
You basically asked and answered your question in a very compact way, but it's funny, because everyone comes up to me and says, "Inafune-san, I know you love robots!" And I kind of do a double-take because for me it's like, "Oh yeah, I do love robots," but they've been a part of me for so long that they're in my DNA. I'm not saying it's something that non-Japanese people wouldn't understand, but by the time you're able to comprehend things in life at a very young age [in Japan], you're exposed to the subject matter of robots.

So if you're Japanese and you're in a creative industry—games, film, TV, entertainment—robots are second nature. It's almost a given that they become favorite subjects. And on top of that, for myself as a game creator, and for any creator, for that matter, you know you're probably going to do your best work if you work with themes and concepts that you really love. So I think for me it's only natural for me to gravitate towards robotic things, and that's why everyone's perception of me is that I love robots. But, really, it's always been a part of me.

ReCore is due for release in mid-2016, exclusively for Xbox One. Mighty No. 9 is released for multiple platforms on September 18.

Follow Steve Haske on Twitter.

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