Four years ago, game director Shinji Mikami noticed a problem with Japan's game industry. He felt the wrong people were getting the right opportunities.
Looking around, he saw game publishers reserving director positions for veteran staff members — people over 40 who were often set in their ways.
"If you're over 40, you're somewhat out of touch with the people buying your games," says Mikami, "and when you're young you don't know enough about the industry. When you're in your 30s you have the right balance — you're energetic and have your ego and can focus without distractions, but you have enough experience to manage people and know the business."
He doesn't mention it, but at 30 Mikami directed Resident Evil 1, creating Capcom's most popular franchise. At 39, he directed Resident Evil 4, Capcom's most critically acclaimed game.
Then at 44, he founded independent team Tango Gameworks in an attempt to help others do the same. The studio's "top priority," he says, is to train and give chances to young creators. Shortly after founding the company, Mikami even spoke publicly about directing one final game and then stepping back and handing over the reins to younger directors.
But sometimes plans change.
Giving young directors chances isn't new to Mikami. It's something he learned at a young age.
When Mikami started at Capcom in 1989, he worked under Tokuro Fujiwara — the head of Capcom's consumer development division and the creator of the brutally difficult Ghosts 'n Goblins series. Since the game industry was in its early years and there weren't many veterans to turn to, Fujiwara gave young team members like Mikami chances to lead projects. Mikami loved the opportunity, though he says Fujiwara's methods were extreme.
"When I was working for him, I went home maybe twice a week," Mikami says. "And my salary on Resident Evil 1 was probably less than a first-year employee would get today. I was actually unable to get married because of my financial situation.
"It was a different time. If I did that now, I would probably be sued."
Mikami says that after shipping Resident Evil 2 as a producer, his finances settled and he was able to marry — and in spite of the challenges he faced, he respects Fujiwara's approach. In fact, Mikami says that in some ways Fujiwara's approach was more effective at training people quickly than his is these days, and he criticizes himself for being too easy on his current team.
"When I was working for him, I went home maybe twice a week."
As Resident Evil became a big deal at Capcom in the late '90s, Mikami's stock in the company rose, allowing him to mentor and give chances to those around him. He pushed for a director-led culture, where games would be designed less collaboratively and more from the top down. He gave chances to young directors such as Hideki Kamiya, who went on to create Devil May Cry, Okami and Viewtiful Joe; and Shu Takumi, who created Ace Attorney and Ghost Trick.
As the years went on at Capcom, though, Mikami says the company started to change — that it became more business focused, making it harder for him to take chances.
"Capcom became a little too big, and they started modeling their business structure after Electronic Arts — in terms of management, cost, human resources and budgets," he says. "At Capcom before, if a producer came to the senior management meeting with a good idea, it was instantly approved. But then there was a lot of research and a lot of business people involved giving their take. It should be like that as a public company, but I liked Capcom when it was small."
Mikami went freelance, directing the space shooter Vanquish and producing the action horror game Shadows of the Damned. Shadows of the Damned marked a rare occasion for Mikami, as he was able to use his name to help sell publisher Electronic Arts on the title, giving offbeat developer Goichi Suda a chance to develop a game with a large budget for a U.S.-based publisher. But it didn't work out as well as he'd hoped.
Mikami jokes that what makes him happiest about Shadows of the Damned in retrospect is that the team at Grasshopper learned to use the Unreal Engine. The game went through a painful development process, he says, starting as an adventure concept that took place in a dark, tiny space and later becoming an action game. "Suda's vision and direction, and EA's vision and direction, were totally opposite," he says, noting that Suda is better suited at making adventure games than action games.
The shift to an action game didn't thrill Mikami either. Part of the reason he left Capcom was to develop new concepts, and here he was being pulled back into something similar to Resident Evil. "Even when I was at Platinum [where he directed Vanquish]," says Mikami, "I got many passionate requests from Sega to make a horror game, but I didn't do it. There was no reason to leave Capcom if I wanted to make a horror game."
Inevitably, his next title would be a horror game.
On March 1, 2010, Mikami and a team of 12 founded Tango Gameworks.
Publicly, when Mikami started Tango he didn't announce a specific project. In an interview with Japan's Famitsu magazine at the time, he spoke about his desire to cultivate a new group of game directors who could focus on their creativity. He said he was moving his own office from Osaka to Tokyo, and he'd been speaking with publishers but hadn't yet signed a contract.
Mikami says he likes working in Osaka because people there tend to speak more directly, but he opened Tango in Tokyo in part because it's easier to recruit there.
Behind the scenes, the team started work on multiple concepts. Mikami envisioned the studio as a place that could sustain more than one project at a time, in order to create a culture not tied to any one genre and offer more opportunities for young directors. It would develop some small projects, some large.
For the company's first six months, Mikami says, a small team experimented with a joke game idea starring a cockroach who could stand up on two legs and start shooting a gun.
The team's bigger idea was a game called Noah, a sci-fi open world "survival adventure" inspired by the movie Dune. As the story went, it had become a challenge to live on Earth, so people started moving to different planets. And a group of people living in a colony lost contact, so a research group went to find them.
"We were in trouble financially until Bethesda came along."
Noah never got far into development, and soon after starting on it Tango ran into financial trouble. Mikami holds his tongue on the specifics, just saying "something happened." He laughs about the situation in retrospect.
"We were in trouble financially until Bethesda came along," he says.
On October 28, 2010, Bethesda Softworks announced it had acquired Tango. Known for the Elder Scrolls franchise, Bethesda was on a shopping spree, picking up studios with hardcore credibility such as id Software, Arkane Studios and Machine Games.
"Compared to the image of a typical Western game publisher, Bethesda is probably more like a typical Japanese publisher," says Mikami. "They don't force creative people to do stuff. They give that creative freedom to developers."
Mikami says that Tango has milestone check-ins with Bethesda every two months and Bethesda higher-ups can check its work at any point. But he likes their willingness to experiment. For instance, they allow teams to make big-budget, single-player games in a publishing market that tends to favor games with multiplayer features. "We're very proud to be a company that does single-player when a lot of other folks won't," said Bethesda Vice President of PR and Marketing Pete Hines in a 2013 Polygon story.
It takes two
Following Bethesda's acquisition, Mikami says he still wants Tango to become a studio that produces multiple games at a time, but it's not his decision alone.
"The overall company goals remain unchanged, but since Bethesda's first goal was to make a big triple-A title, that's what we're doing first," says Mikami.After going through hundreds of names including Mobius, Bethesda and Tango settled on the title The Evil Within (and Psycho Break in Japan) for Mikami's latest.
In recent years, Bethesda and its parent company Zenimax have avoided small projects, and Mikami says he will need a consensus from them if he is able to branch out to give more people within Tango chances to direct games.
With Bethesda in the picture, Tango left Noah behind and started in on a new Mikami-directed triple-A project code-named Zwei — the German word for "two." That name wasn't a coincidence. Zwei was to be a vampire hunting action game starring a man and a woman attached by a chain. It was a cooperative game, with part of the gimmick being if someone played alone, they'd control both characters simultaneously with one following the other.
As time went on, Zwei evolved into a single-player horror game — what Mikami would later call "pure survival horror" — set partially in a mental hospital.
Mikami gives multiple reasons for the switch, saying he heard feedback that vampires hadn't been popular, and that team members pushed him to make a more traditional horror game. He also jokes that id Software's Creative Director Matt Hooper told him that if Mikami wasn't going to make another survival horror game, then Hooper would do it instead. (In 2008, Hooper spoke publicly about a canceled id survival horror game called Darkness, which coincidentally was the same code name Grasshopper used for Shadows of the Damned.)
Mikami was back where he started, in the director's chair on a horror game.
In April 2013, Bethesda and Tango revealed the game as The Evil Within. Where franchises like Resident Evil and Dead Space have pushed further into the action side of the horror genre in recent years, Tango's game leans more toward survival. Scares over firefights. For Mikami, that's what makes it different than what he's done in recent years.
The elephant in the room in Mikami's plan is Mikami himself. He's currently 48. By his own definition, he's out of touch with his audience.
As he's gotten older, Mikami says he's become more reasonable, more willing to compromise. He doesn't try to overreach as much. He's had two children. He admits to seeing changes in himself, saying he doesn't have the same energy level he used to and he's not as hard on his team as he used to be.
By Mikami's own definition, he's out of touch with his audience.
Tango Producer Masato Kimura points to an example from approximately 12 years ago. Kimura worked as a VFX artist under Mikami on the GameCube Resident Evil 1 remake, and he remembers Mikami had a specific vision in mind for how the last scene in the game should look. To explain himself, Mikami sat next to Kimura for two full days going over every detail in the scene. "He wouldn't do that now, but when he was in his 30s he would," says Kimura.
Team members say not to mistake this change for a lack of dedication, though; they say Mikami still struggles with decisions and spends lots of time walking around the office talking to them, and that his approach is to better prepare them for the future by micromanaging less.
When Mikami thinks back to those two days with Kimura, his mind goes to a comment made by one of the higher-ups at Capcom at the time, Tatsuya Minami, who told him not to watch over people so closely so they would feel like they still had enough freedom to be creative. In retrospect, Mikami agrees with the sentiment.
It was this line of thinking that made news in 2010. In an interview with Famitsu shortly after joining Bethesda, Mikami said that his first game for Tango would be the last he would direct himself, in part to create opportunities for others.
"I can only last for so long handling both director and company president duties, and besides, I want to give our younger developers a chance," he said. "Knowing that, of course, makes me want to put all of my experience, my energy and everything else I've got into this game. I'm pretty lucky that [Bethesda] was willing to accept that, too. Too many publishers are only interested in the very near future, after all."
Those comments led to reports online of Mikami planning to retire as a director, which he says didn't go over well with higher-ups at Bethesda and may not end up being true.
"I probably shouldn't have said that," says Mikami. "My bosses were pretty upset. That was something I decided before I started Tango, that the next project would be my last. ... I was thinking back then that I would have to spend more time managing the studio and training people rather than directing. But now because Tango is part of Bethesda, I have less management overhead. So I have more time to get involved with a game than I originally thought I would."
At this point, Mikami says he doesn't know who will direct Tango's next game. It might be him. It might be someone else at Tango. In his interview answers, he bounces back and forth between his desires to lead projects and to give team members chances to lead their own.
Just prior to the Tokyo Game Show in September 2013, Mikami began telling the team at Tango that he had identified three team members who he thinks are capable of directing games at the company in the future. He can't say when it might happen or what those games might be, just that these three are next in line.
From left to right: Shigenori Nishikawa, Naoki Katakai and Ikumi Nakamura
They are Evil Within lead game designer Shigenori Nishikawa, art director Naoki Katakai and lead concept artist Ikumi Nakamura. "Each of them has different things that stand out," Mikami says. "Nishikawa is good at managing people and taking care of team members. Katakai is great at visualizing the world he imagines. And Nakamura, I can't ever predict what she'll think of. It's so unique."
Nishikawa, who previously directed black and white action game MadWorld at Platinum Games, takes the praise modestly. "I know that I don't have any special genius creativity," he says, "but maybe Mikami thinks I do? I mean, why is he always nominating me? When I look back at my past accomplishments, I don't see it."
When Nishikawa describes his approach to development, however, it fits right in line with Mikami's comments. He talks of giving a game structure to prevent the team from constantly tearing things down and losing motivation, and customizing a game's design to team members' preferences. "Mikami probably saw me trying to make this environment where we're enjoying making games together without worrying about who's job is what and thought I looked like I could put a team together," he says.
While responsible for Evil Within's look, Katakai says his job is mostly keeping things on track, trying to find the balance so things don't end up "too 'cool,' too 'pretty,' or too 'dirty.'" He credits his design sense and ideas, as well as experience working with outside teams and team members who disagree with one another as why Mikami may have picked him.
Katakai says he also often tends to start in on an idea before getting permission, since he finds it challenging to describe his ideas before he has something to show. "It is really difficult to articulate what I feel," he says. "I'm probably only communicating 10% of what I really want to say. In terms of the production environment, it is a good environment for each of the members of the team. Especially for people in art, communication is very clear. Because if you have talent, all you have to do is get something presented on screen."
Nakamura, the first woman whom Mikami has chosen as a potential director, takes her own modest approach. "Mr. Mikami seems to think I am a strange animal," she says. "Maybe that's why he's taken interest in me? The other two above me, Mr. Katakai and Mr. Nishikawa, have their own distinct personalities. I wouldn't say I'm in the same league."
She previously worked on concept art for stylish action game Bayonetta, and says she tries to approach her work with a high-level concept behind it to avoid being labeled "just an artist." "Concept artists often get caught up in the visual quality of their work, but I think the idea at the heart of it is most important," she says, noting the importance of providing direction to the team. She also draws a comic strip called "The Real Tango" on the company's website, which refers to her as a "rookie director."
While Nishikawa, Katakai and Nakamura are on Mikami's short list, what that means in practical terms remains up in the air.
Mikami says he's not auditioning them or having them compete with one another, at least not at the moment. "I'm not particularly doing anything to select or promote them," he says. "I'm just observing everyone and trying to grow their talent naturally. And right now, I just see those three."
He also clarifies that as of late 2013 none of them have games in the works, even in the early stages of pre-production. And he can't say for certain whether one of them will direct Tango's next game — it might be one of them with him overseeing, or it might be him again.
The next 10 years
Looking back at Tango's first four years now, Mikami says that things didn't go exactly to plan, but he's happy with the results.
He seems to feel conflicted about the best way to handle work. He wants to give team members freedom to grow, but worries about giving them too much freedom. He has "many" games he wants to make before he retires, but he also wants to train a new generation to make its own.
Mikami says he has no idea what Tango will look like in 10 years. "I hope it's a fun place to work," he says. "The top priority when I started Tango was to train young people, so 10 years from now I'm going to be interested to see how well I did. Whether or not we have successful IP will depend on that."
He has "many" games he wants to make before he retires, but he also wants to train a new generation to make its own.
It starts with The Evil Within, which ships to stores in just about six months. Thus far, the reception has been moderately strong, with developers like Gears of War Lead Designer Cliff Bleszinski tweeting encouragement, and sites giving it awards at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Mikami hopes it will prove there's room in the market for this type of big budget survival horror game.
And now, Mikami and the team at Tango just need to finish it. Then they can start to figure out how the next step of Mikami's grand plan will play out.
Though in some ways, it already has.
After wrapping his second interview for this story, Mikami checks his phone and sees an email from a former protege, Hiroki Kato, who Mikami appointed to direct Resident Evil Code: Veronica in the late '90s. Despite Code: Veronica's critical success, Kato never struck it big as a director, and instead went on to work as a designer on games such as the beat-'em-up God Hand and Vanquish.
Following Vanquish, he left the world of game development. And he emailed Mikami to let him know he had decided to become a farmer. Mikami reads the message and laughs, then shares the news with Kimura and others at the restaurant like a proud father.
Kato may not have stuck with game development, but Mikami was able to give him a shot and likes seeing him grow up.
That, in part, is why Mikami does his job.