Gunvolt Chronicles Luminous Avenger IX

Inti Creates is arguably one of the most talented game developers working in Japan today. The company – formed by ex-Capcom staff – has produced self-made hits like Azure Striker Gunvolt and Gal*Gun, but has also worked extensively with other firms to produce titles like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Mighty No. 9, Blaster Master Zero and many more.

We were lucky enough to pay a visit to the company's offices and sit down with president Takuya Aizu to talk about the past, present and future of Inti Creates.

Nintendo Life: What made you decide to go it alone as an independent company? What kind of challenges did you face getting the company off of the ground?

Takuya Aizu: When we left Capcom, we hadn’t done so much for Capcom and hadn’t become famous creators, so it was very difficult to find a company willing to sell what we were making. At the time, Sony Music Entertainment was a shareholder of Sony Computer Entertainment, so they were the higher ranked company owned by Sony and Sony Music Entertainment, and the latter ran a program called Club Dev to help find new game creators. Club Dev was a program set up to find individuals, but one of our members applied to enter the program and won the prize given out by the program. Sony Music Entertainment said they would give 1,000,000 Yen to anybody trying to be an independent developer. However, since we were 10 people, we negotiated with them so that they would pay 100,000,000 Yen so we could form a company and make a game which could be released by Sony Music Entertainment.

So would you say that it was lucky timing that you had that opportunity?

That’s right, yes. Our guy didn’t apply to enter the program to help us form an independent company, he did it to challenge himself. So in that sense, the timing was very lucky. Also, they were giving out 1,000,000 Yen but we asked for 100,000,000 Yen, that is obviously a significantly higher amount. They gave us that money to support us; I think they really were a great company for creating talent.

Inti Creates office
Inti Creates' offices in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, Japan — Image: Jake Baldwin / Nintendo Life

You certainly wouldn’t have been able to challenge yourself by taking part in that program if you were still working at a big company like Capcom, right?

Probably not; if we asked to take part as members of a company, we would likely have been refused, but he genuinely took part as an individual to test his own abilities. Maybe it wasn’t a good thing to do, but we were able to form our own company through this so we were really happy. Maybe it wouldn’t have been good if we applied as Capcom!

You started with around 10 people, yet I believe you now have around 100 employees. How much has the company changed since the start? Did you have more freedom to make the games you wanted when you only had to people? What is the biggest difference between now and then?

The biggest thing was that we had no money so we had to manage the money based on just us. We know we can pay for ourselves for X amount of months, it’s much easier to calculate that sort of thing and plan around that. Also, when you have few people you tend to only have specialists. For example, something that A can do cannot be done by B, and vice versa. The workload of one person cannot be split and done by multiple people. Because of this, the development schedule gradually becomes slower. With a big team, there are other people who can do the same job as A. For example, within the same team there are people who possess many different skills, so if A is running late then another team can help out by sharing members of their team who can do that job. Because of that, we can prevent our development schedule falling behind.

When making games, we, of course, have to think about what hardware we are targeting, who we are targeting, and who owns those devices

Aside from that, with regards to our daily lives we needed to make sure we could eat tomorrow! If you have less people, you have to avoid work falling behind by perhaps deciding to work later at night or on days off and weekends. With a big team, you don’t need to do that. We can have regular lives which focusing on what kind of games we want to make.

PlatinumGames once said that they have to balance the games they want to make with those that pay the bills. Is that a problem that Inti Creates has?

Sure, in the past that certainly was the case. For example, our business was focused a lot on making games for clients. In that sense, it was similar to PlatinumGames. These days, we are moving towards making original games which we want to sell and promote. We’ve been working on that for the last 3 years and have been really happy with it.

Early on, you worked on many Mega Man games. How were you able to work on those games? Was it because you formerly worked at Capcom that you had a relationship and thus were trusted with such an important franchise?

Yeah, Keiji Inafune was supervisor to our Vice President Yoshihisa Tsuda at Capcom – they had worked on games like Mega Man 7 and Mega Man X2 and they had a good relationship. That certainly was a big reason. That said, they obviously couldn’t just give us an important franchise like Mega Man just because of this relationship. We had to show our proposal for Mega Man Zero to Keiji Inafune, and it took around a year before they decided to go with our proposal. Keiji Inafune was a very high up person at Capcom and we had actually left Capcom, so it was difficult to go back to Capcom with an idea for work after we had left. Certainly, in a Japanese company, that is a very difficult thing. We had to meet up with him at trade shows like the Tokyo Game Show, E3 etc., show him our proposal, and discuss things with him there.

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Inti Creates producer Matt Papa and company president Takuya Aizu — Image: Jake Baldwin / Nintendo Life

When you were eventually allowed to work on Mega Man, how much free rein did Capcom give Inti Creates regarding the series? Did they trust you more since you were ex-Capcom?

Fundamentally, while Mega Man Zero was something made by Yoshihisa Tsuda and us after we had left Capcom to help form Inti Creates, we initially worked on 3D games. However, we realised that we really didn’t like making 3D games, so we thought hard about what we actually wanted to make – we decided that was Mega Man. He joined Capcom because he liked Mega Man, yet he left. He really wanted to work more on Mega Man. With that in mind, he worked very hard on a proposal for Mega Man and approached Keiji Inafune. Inafune felt the proposal was great, and were able to make Mega Man Zero based on that.

The kind of 2D games that Inti Creates makes are obviously a good fit for portable devices such as the 3DS and Switch, arguably more so than for the PlayStation 4. Has the success of these formats helped you find a bigger audience for your games?

When making games, we, of course, have to think about what hardware we are targeting, who we are targeting, and who owns those devices. Of course, we think that adults playing games is a great thing, but in general, we target our games for kids growing up now. We think it’s great that people fondly remember the games that played as a kid and that these made such a strong impression, so we target hardware that kids can use – such as mobile devices – rather than big consoles which require an expensive TV so we can create these memories. I think that the fact that this interview is taking place hopefully means that we have succeeded at that!

We make physical packages before we make the download version and sell them at the same time so that many people can play them

Is it hard to balance things to make them appealing to modern kids?

To put it simply, I think that today’s kids probably don’t want to play 2D action games, so maybe 2D action games themselves aren’t a good fit for today’s kids. However, we really love 2D action games so we want kids to play them. So we think about artwork, music, etc. which will appeal to kids to get them to play our games. Though to be clear, we’re Japanese, so we can only really talk about what Japanese kids want.

Clearly, it’s working well, because your titles have done well on the Switch and 3DS. How hard is it to stand out on the eShop with so many games on there?

It is very hard to stand out on the eShop. With that in mind, we also focus on physical packages. If we just release on the eShop, there is a feature banner and ranking, but you soon fall down the ranking and it becomes harder to get noticed. So for sure, if you just release your game on the eShop then your game will not stand out. To stand out, you need name promotion so you need to work with promoters when doing that; it involves not just ourselves but us working together with stores and distributors to inform people about our games. For this, we make physical packages before we make the download version and sell them at the same time so that many people can play them.

The 3DS and Switch have been two of your main platforms. How closely do you work with Nintendo? How have they helped out?

I would say that the relationship is good! The reason is the Wii U, and also the 3DS right before the Switch was released, were in a very difficult sales position. It was around that time that we started to self-publish. Games for both the Wii U and 3DS were beginning to dry up, so our decision to self-publish on those platforms was likely a good strategic match. Because of this, we received a lot of support for the 3DS and were able to self-publish our first titles, starting with Azure Striker Gunvolt. Also, at the time that we released Gunvolt, both Sony and Microsoft were offering a lot of support to indie publishers. Nintendo didn’t really have official support, but nonetheless, they wanted indie games on the eShop. So when we said we wanted to publish games on their platform as an indie developer, we received a lot of support and this formed a good relationship.

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Inside Inti Creates' offices — Image: Jake Baldwin / Nintendo Life

We heard recently that you were interested in doing a remake of Zelda II. How realistic is that, do you think it could really be possible?

[Laughs] Firstly, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to make it from a business perspective! I was asked during an interview if I could make a game using a Nintendo character, what would I like to make. I really love The Legend of Zelda so I answered that if I could make The Adventure of Link I would be really happy. That story kind of blew up, but it wasn’t really something I was thinking about from a business perspective that I would like to make it, but simply that if I could make a game using Nintendo characters that it would be The Adventures of Link. And I still think that! But our company and I don’t really think it is realistic that we could make a game using Nintendo characters. But if after a long time such a miracle could happen, that would be really great! But we think it is unlikely.

That said, are there any other games featuring Nintendo characters that you would really like to make?

Well, it is The Legend of Zelda that I really love, right from when it first came out on the Famicom Disk System. I don’t think there are any Nintendo characters I’d like to work on other than that. Of course, Nintendo has loads of appealing characters, and plenty that you could make games with, that’s really great. I sort of let it be known that I love The Adventures of Link; there are plenty of other great games, but that is my favourite.

You returned to the Mega Man formula somewhat with Mighty No. 9, which also saw you work with Keiji Inafune more closely, as well as working together with Comcept. How was the development split between Comcept and Inti Creates, and what were the difficulties faced in having to develop in cooperation with an external company?

I don’t really think it is realistic that we could make a game using Nintendo characters. But if after a long time such a miracle could happen

Mighty No. 9 was an unusual title for Inti Creates. Usually for our games, the director is somebody within the company and the director heads the development of the game. The producer does not normally have much to do with the content of the game itself, instead focusing on how to sell and promote and make money from the game. As far as making the game does, the director is at the top. That’s how we make games.

In the case of Mighty No. 9, alongside a director within Inti Creates, there was Keiji Inafune at Comcept, and there was a director within Comcept, and we mustn't forget that there were also [Kickstarter] backers following the game’s development and giving their opinions. Our director listened to the opinions of the backers, the director at Comcept as well as Inafune within Comcept, and then had to make the games based on those opinions. Within those opinions, we would choose the ones which we felt were the most interesting. If we felt their ideas were more interesting than ours, we would use those. We received a lot of really interesting opinions during development. So even if the director wasn’t at the top, they were able to gather lots of good opinions. Maybe it was slightly less our style, but overall we felt we did very well at attempting something new.

I would imagine if you’re doing the project internally, it would have been easier to make sure that everybody is on the same page and going in the same direction. Was it difficult to deal with that?

There were difficulties, but nothing that we weren’t happy to deal with. It wasn’t as if we had never worked together before; both the director at Comcept and Inafune himself formerly worked at Capcom. So while it may have been more difficult than if we were the sole developer, in general, those difficulties were much lower than they might have been. There were difficulties, but it certainly wasn’t all hard.

Normally if you make a game, I would imagine that you would make a game that you feel appeals to your audience, whereas with a Kickstarter the situation is almost reversed in the at the backers have already paid in. Does this add a lot of pressure to make a game that the backers want, having to listen to more opinions; is it harder than just making a game internally?

Getting feedback during development was definitely a plus for us. One of the difficulties, however, goes back to our conversation about balancing making games as a business with making the games that we like. While we were making games as a business vs. the games we want to make, we could decide whether or not we could implement features based on the time and costs involved. However, with a Kickstarter the amount of money raised is already known when you start developing the game, there is no budget or time frame beyond this. With this in mind, we received many opinions from the backers, and even though we knew that if we implemented all of these then we would go over budget and go beyond our time frame, there were still things which we had to do as well as things which we had to refuse. That was very difficult for us. What we should or should not do was dictated by the cost.

It would be great to be able to work 100% on our own properties, but have also built up close relationships with many companies, companies that have become our clients

You also worked on another Kickstarter with Koji Igarashi, when developing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. Did your experience with Mighty No. 9 help?

Sure, the things we learnt during the development of Mighty No. 9 were of great value when making our second Kickstarter game. As well as our own standards and judgement, we had various feedback from the backers, and we knew that the amount of things we had to do would increase from when development starts. With that in mind, we implemented stretch goals from the start, and it was a huge benefit to schedule by exactly which month and day that features need to be implemented by.

You were also involved with the more recent Bloodstained game, Ritual of the Night, but pulled out of the project early on. Was this purely to devote more resources into other projects?

The first thing we planned to on was work on the alpha with Igarashi, and we definitely intended to work on it to that point. After it reached the alpha stage, we looked at the budget that we felt we would need, and Igarashi looked at the budget he felt necessary to complete the project. After discussing this together, we felt that while Inti Creates are very efficient at making action games, there was a need to improve graphical assets, brushing up, and it was concluded that would cost us money on our side. With that in mind, it was felt best that our involvement ended after completing the alpha, with another company taking charge of brushing up the project.

In general, it seems that you either develop game on a contract basis with other companies, or cooperate with other companies on joint project. Is there any desire to focus 100% on original properties?

Not at all. It would be great to be able to work 100% on our own properties, but have also built up close relationships with many companies, companies that have become our clients. They would be in trouble if they lose their developer, one that they have been using. We don’t want to cause problems for the clients that we have been working with. So we want to keep working as a developer and fulfil the requests that our clients have. Ideally, we want 60% of our games to be our own properties, and devote 40% to our clients.

You mentioned earlier that you primarily target Japanese kids. Do you look at what appeals to western kids at all and make any special effort to appeal to fans overseas?

The first thing is that, frankly, we don’t really know what really appeals to people outside the Japanese market! Also, we were raised on Japanese games and thus maybe the games which appeal to us are the type of games which were made in Japan in the past. The games which are interesting to us and want to play are mainly those which we played during childhood, and we make games thinking of those. We don’t really know how to make types of games other than those. So all we can do is make games for Japanese kids, and localise those for other markets.

There are a few examples of Japanese developers attempting to appeal to western audiences by making their games more western, but actually alienating that audience as a result since people who find appeal in Japanese games want to play Japanese-style games. So I think your approach is for the best.

Thank you very much! It’s not that we don’t want to make games for other audiences, it’s more than we really only can make Japanese-style games!

The games which are interesting to us and want to play are mainly those which we played during childhood, and we make games thinking of those

You’ve also published several albums as a company, featuring music produced by your staff members. How big is your sound team, and how important are they to what you’re trying to do as a company?

When forming Inti Creates, our concept was not to just form a company but to make it so that musicians can express themselves with music, artists can express themselves with art, and of course there were people who want to do programming, the director who wants to work on the essence of the game and so on. We wanted to create a place where people could express themselves. In that sense, the fact that we have people within the company who want to express themselves through music, for us this is as important as releasing games. We also have staff who want to make merchandise, so we moved into e-commerce so that our staff member could do this and formed an area where people could work on merchandise.

You’ve also produced art for other companies, such as the art for the Shantae games for WayForward. It seems that you are well equipped to contribute to all elements of game design. Is this useful for cooperative projects with other companies, having so many specialists in many areas?

There are certainly people within the company who can be the top creators, so they can always offer to make the music or art for a game. This is a huge plus, even beyond the games. For example, if somebody wants to work on the art for Shantae, the profit for just making the art might not be very great, but it creates a good relationship, and it is because of this that we were able to do a collaboration between Shantae and Blaster Master. In that sense, it’s not just about the money but connections between people and helping people with their abilities to make games.

And finally, what do you see for the future of Inti Creates? Is there anything as a company that you want to work hard to achieve?

We’re really happy that we can make the games that we want to make and play, and that people buy them and play them. That’s been the real plus for us. We’re happy that over the past 24 years we’ve been able to make the games we want, that people have been buying them and it has been profitable for us. That was the first step for us. In the future, we want even more people to play our games. Whether that is just through maybe one game selling lots, or by releasing a lot of smaller titles and these are promoted, but our overall goal is for more people to experience our games.

We'd like to thank Takuya Aizu for his time, and Matt Papa for making the interview happen, as well as providing interpretation. Inti Creates' next game, Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX, launches in September.