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Keiji Inafune on Kojima, Nintendo, and fans' misconceptions

Mighty No. 9 director reflects on recent successes and failures, and the complicated reality of being a game creator in Japan.

For many of us, the mere mention of a new project from someone like Hideo Kojima or Ken Levine sparks excitement, details be damned. This behavior stems from our collective mascot-ization of team leaders, whose careers get condensed into an easily-digestible form: that of an icon.

One such icon is Keiji Inafune. He is routinely viewed as the father of Mega Man, a series which he certainly spent a great deal of his career on, but not in fact one that he was responsible for creating. He returned to the spotlight in 2013 when his Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 garnered interest from fans, who were excited to see their Mega Man icon return for an encore performance. Mighty No. 9 quickly met its initial funding goal two short days after it began, which one can only imagine left Inafune swelling with pride.

Today, more than two years later, he wavers between excitement and exhaustion when speaking about the project. Since the halcyon days of the crowdfunding campaign, Mighty No. 9 has created numerous challenges for Inafune, his team and his fans. His reputation is rocky among those who once supported him the most, and he knows it. We recently sat down with Inafune to reflect on Mighty No. 9, the sometimes harsh reality of being a creator in the games industry, and common misconceptions that fans have about game development.

GameSpot: When you think about Mighty No. 9, how does it make you feel? Are you excited? Are you nervous? Are you happy to be done with it?

Inafune: Ever since the announcement of the last delay, which was at Gamescom, I was very stressed out. Even though, until that point, I was really excited and I couldn't wait to show people Mighty No. 9, it's been a very stressful couple months since then. Like you said, we are almost at the [finish] line, and once again, I'm looking forward to seeing the players' and fans' reactions after they play the game.

How does it feel to have this weight on your shoulders? Inti Creates is helping you make this game, but when most people think about Mighty No. 9, they primarily think about you. How do you feel about being in the spotlight?

The kind of attention and pressure that I get is natural for a team leader in a project like this. You get attention -- good and bad -- coming to you. I see it as only natural. Once the game is out, I won't be judged -- my game and the gameplay will be judged -- and that's what really matters to me.

How do you feel about crowdfunding now? Like Mighty No. 9, Red Ash's Kickstarter campaign was obviously a learning experience as well, but through that, you eventually secured funding from Fuze. Do you want to do more crowdfunding in the future, or, do you think that you should pursue traditional means of funding in the future?


Inafune's latest: Red Ash: The Indelible Legend

The Red Ash Kickstarter was definitely a learning experience. We knew this already, but it was clear again how important the communication with backers is, so that's something we took away from that experience.

However, the Red Ash project became a reality thanks to Fuze. So, at one point, we'll probably have something to show to the backers, even though they're not exactly backers. But we can show the fans that this is what we wanted to make, and it became something like "this." So, maybe they will see the project differently and they will want to give their money to us. We will see what happens.

From your perspective, has crowdfunding impacted publishers at all, positively or negatively?

I think the experience of crowdfunding is adding another perspective to the business, because, traditionally speaking, as a publisher, the IP belongs to them. But, in the case of crowdfunding, it belongs to the creator. So, in the case of Mighty No. 9, even though Deep Silver has become our publisher, Comcept is the IP holder. The power balance is even. It's definitely a good thing for creators, and hopefully more people can become IP holders through crowdfunding.

There's been a lot of discussion about Hideo Kojima and Konami lately, and the perspective from the outside is that he wasn't valued as a creator [by Konami]. I'm curious: Is this surprising to you? How do you feel about that kind of relationship, and is it traditional?

So, it's not about the Japanese companies, but, [what] I think is that the Japanese culture in general has less respect for creators -- the field doesn't matter -- compared to North America or European countries. Even though Japan has a lot of creators in different fields -- video games, manga, anime -- at the same time, as a culture, it's really hard for creators to grow because of a lack of respect for creators in general. In Japan, it's almost like: if you're a CEO, your status is way higher than a creator. Even though you aren't creating anything, you have social status, money, and your own company -- that's more respected than if you've created something from scratch. It's not about Japanese companies; it's more due to the Japanese culture.

In America, if you ask any gamer if they know Shigeru Miyamoto, 90 percent of them would say "hell yes!" But if you ask in Japan, less than half, maybe, say "yes." If you ask Japanese people if they know Mario, Zelda or Nintendo, Japanese people will say "yes, I know the games." But if you ask who created them, almost nobody will [know.] That's the reality.

It's interesting you mention that. I was going to ask you about Nintendo, because, from my perspective, it has the model to follow. We know its creators, and even people such as Iwata. As Nintendo gets older, and the creators we all know begin to retire, do you think that it will be able to successfully continue that effort? No one really knows how to relate to Iwata's successor, Tatsumi Kimishima. We don't know who he is or what to think about him. He doesn't the same kind of history that we can relate to. Do you think that Japanese creators will continue to earn international recognition, or is it nostalgia that's keeping the original creators relevant?

The reason Nintendo pushes more of their creators is because the founder, Yamauchi-san, is the one who actually pushed Miyamoto as a creator. To continue that tradition, it will become harder and harder, especially after Miyamoto. It's really tough to say how we can change this, because, there will be fewer and fewer people well known to the media and the Western world, so I really don't know what's going to happen to the industry in that respect. Even Kojima: I think some people in Japan know him, but even Kojima is not that well known by the general public. It's a really tough time.

People make a lot of assumptions when it comes to game development. What's the biggest misunderstanding that fans have?

There's too many to name them! Compared to movies or TV series, the power balance of a creative team is totally different in the case of video game development. If we were making a movie, the producer or director has the power to overrule anybody else, even if there are 200-300 people on the team, they have the power to make a thing the way they want. That's not the case in game development because there are so many teams making a game together. It's really hard to say that, just because my name is on top, that I get to make every decision myself.

It's not just about one person or one studio: it's about a bunch of people getting together and seeing if the team works. Just because you are famous for something, it doesn't mean that you're always going to make a good game, because your team is going to be different. If you take someone famous to a different team, they may not work as well together as a previous team.

One more misunderstanding: Sometimes people assume that I'm loaded, as a game creator. That might be the case in the West. If you have a couple of successful games, you might be loaded. But that's not the case for Japanese creators because everything goes to the company. It doesn't matter how big you are; if you are a game creator or producer in a company, you're just making an average salary. So, it doesn't matter how famous you are, your pay will change only little by little every year, and there's no huge bonus that comes in your pocket.