After decades in the trenches at Capcom, Tatsuya Minami is building an empire one game at a time.
Platinum Games' development studio consists of a single room.
Head in the office's front door, through the walk-of-fame lobby — with each of the company's titles and their release dates planted in the carpet — past a series of rainbow-colored meeting rooms, and you'll find a locked door.
Open it and you'll see 100 yards in each direction of low-walled desks, filled with staff who make games about super-deformed superheroes, space marine football players, sexy witches, cybernetic ninjas, chainsaw-armed musclemen and trash-talking pimps. If you're an outsider, team members will instantly stare.
Off to the left, President Tatsuya Minami has the only office here: a glass-walled cube in the corner that looks like a display case for toy cars and memorabilia.
His job is to be the grown-up amongst the superheroes and ninjas. He's the one with a door to close. The one finding the company work. The one making final calls on what games to develop. And the one whose journey from art student to Capcom producer to Platinum president meant stepping away from game production in order to make better games.
The first 20 years
Like many studio heads, Minami began his career on the creative side.
He studied poster and advertising layout design in college, knowing that he wanted to work with computers but not finding a school that taught computer graphics. "I don't think I was a really great graphic designer," he says. "I was probably pretty bad at it."
At the time, there was no formal training for the game industry, so Minami looked for local companies working with computer graphics and found Capcom. He got hired, and split his time working on pixel art for games and posters to promote arcade titles. His first project was art for a Nintendo console port of the arcade driving/shooting game Rush & Crash. Capcom canceled the port partway through production.
As Minami settled in at the company, he shifted to game design and producer roles, overseeing console ports of high-profile titles like Final Fight and iterations of Street Fighter 2. He says his best memory at Capcom came with the chance to lead Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts — after a previous director struggled to make it work, higher-ups assigned Minami to replace him. It was the first project where he had a lot of sway and a team of approximately 50 people, huge for 1991.
Minami took on the nickname "Mickey" (since Capcom didn't allow developers to put their real names in credits at the time), and over the next 15 years had a hand in most of Capcom's highest-profile franchises: Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Mega Man, etc. But after 20 years at Capcom, he'd grown tired of working on sequels.
"At Capcom I was working on lots of titles, and a lot of those were just things that needed to be done for the company," he says. "And in the process of doing that, I started to feel more and more frustrated. My biggest personal motivation for leaving was I realized that if I started my own company and brought in a whole bunch of new people, we'd be able to make original and new things."
So in 2006, Minami left to start his own studio. Around the same time, members of Capcom's Clover Studio — known for art house games like brush painting wolf adventure Okami and comical beat-'em-up God Hand — left to do the same. And in 2007, the two groups merged to form Platinum Games.
The next seven
In starting Platinum, Minami's career took a dramatic shift. For the first time in 20 years, his job was no longer to make games but to run a company. He'd wake up and have to think practically rather than creatively. He says it took a bit of adjustment, but he saw the benefits in being able to support teams and protect them from the kind of situation he fell into at Capcom.
In essence, he sacrificed his creative side to help others with theirs.
"There is a little bit of frustration that I can't go in there and make games myself," he says. "But one of the cool things about working here is there are people who are supremely talented at making games and are much better at making games than I am."
Under Minami's guidance, Platinum has completed six games to date, five of which count as new intellectual properties: black and white beat-'em up MadWorld, space role-playing game Infinite Space, chaotic action adventure Bayonetta, fast-paced shooter Vanquish and multiplayer brawler Anarchy Reigns.
"Every time there's a thread asking for the developer or game with the best this or the best that, it seems the answer is always Platinum Games."
The sixth, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, marked Platinum's expansion into licensed titles when it shipped earlier this year. It came about when Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima realized his internal studio was struggling to make the game work, and approached Minami because he considered Platinum "the only studio" he felt could make a quality ninja action game the way he envisioned it. Though the game wasn't an original idea from Platinum, the team took the job in part because the type of action — sword-based combat — fit the company's strengths.
(Minami says Platinum has also developed several game concepts in its office that never got off the ground, including one that made it far enough into development for the team to create a trailer. But he can't give details because "it was based on somebody else's IP. It was kind of a major thing and we don't want to upset them.")
Common threads carry through most of the studio's games — stylish violence, outlandish characters, a sense of humor and polished combat mechanics — and inspire incredibly loyal fans. A recent thread on game message board NeoGAF called "The Answer is Always Platinum" proposed that it wasn't fair to put Platinum up against other developers because it would always win:
"Every time [there's] a thread asking for the developer or game with the best this or the best that, it seems the answer is always Platinum Games. It hardly seems fair to anybody else. So instead of creating another thread with a single topic where the answer will be 'Platinum Games,' it is instead time to create a thread where we already know the answer is Platinum Games, we just have to come up with the questions."
Quiet means good
As the head of Platinum, Minami spends the majority of his time in meetings: checking progress updates on games, keeping publishers happy, making decisions when needed, working with the company's executive team on what projects to pursue and what deals to sign.
As Minami describes it, a good day is when people don't need him.
"Generally what I've learned is whenever anybody comes to me and says, 'Do you have a minute?' it's not going to be a good time," he says. "When there's good things happening and things are going smoothly, no one comes to me."
As a loose example, treated as more of a joke than a serious issue, Minami says he often hears from staff members about inappropriate tweets from Platinum's most well-known game director, Hideki Kamiya. A perpetual antagonist, Kamiya often tweets in rapid succession with short answers, occasionally using English curse words directed at followers.
Minami says he stopped following Kamiya on Twitter to reduce clutter, but any time Kamiya says something harsh it makes its way back to Minami. "I think Kamiya tweets thinking that I'm not looking at it actively, but I don't think he realizes how much I see," says Minami with a laugh. "So when he says something that I notice, I do go to his seat and have a stern talking-to with him.
"Up until this point, everything he's said on Twitter has been on the very close side of the safe line. I've never asked him to delete anything. But he pushes that safe line when he decides to use some of the more foul language that he knows in English."
In situations like these, Minami has to balance his desire to give Platinum staff enough rope to be creative with stepping in when they take things too far.
Minami says the biggest challenge running Platinum is finding new work for the team.
Asked to rate Platinum's progress over the past five years, he gives the developers at the studio an A. "The team has been working really hard," he says. "They've held up their end of the bargain and done a really good job of putting out really high-quality games."
On the business side, he's less enthusiastic. "Whether we've sold as well as we would have liked, or whether the company has the amount of money that everybody would love to have in the company, I think I'd probably rate it as a C or even a D.
"We obviously grew up being part of the domestic Japanese market — a lot of our staff spent time in domestic Japanese publishers, focused really on the domestic Japanese market. And now we're trying to expand and focus more outward and think about gamers worldwide. But when you think about what global success really means, that means we need to be selling more titles. Our games need to sell more copies."
As of the end of 2012, Bayonetta was Platinum's best seller, moving over a million units. But Minami says that's not good enough. "Bayonetta didn't sell what we wanted it to sell," he says. "We were hoping it was going to do a little bit better than that, though you can't put it all on the game itself. I think there were a lot of issues with when it came out, the kind of marketing behind it."
"I think the one thing that we want more than anything in the immediate future ... is for people to understand that we're making games here in Japan, but we're making games for everybody."
For Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Minami says it's too early to know exact numbers, but early prospects look good due to the marketing and the strength of the Metal Gear brand. "We're expecting Metal Gear Rising to sell better than Bayonetta, and obviously it's just come out," he says. "But if you look at games developed in certain Western studios, as far as sales go, they're clearly ahead of us there, and we're not going to be satisfied until we're at that level."
Minami says the main two things Platinum needs to do to get there are to rethink its production process for next-generation development — which includes more outsourcing and role specialization amongst team members — and spend time evaluating what players around the world want from its games.
"We have to think a lot about what resonates with consumers globally and find that secret sauce and make sure that goes into our games," he says. "And there's a lot of places we need to look for that: it's not just in art, it's also in game design, it's also in music ... I think the one thing that we want more than anything in the immediate future — and it's something we continue to work hard on — is we definitely want people to understand that we're making games here in Japan, but we're making games for everybody."
Putting the plan in action
Currently, Platinum has two announced games in the works, both for Nintendo on Wii U — a Bayonetta sequel, and a new action game called The Wonderful 101 with an art style similar to Japanese "tokusatsu" superhero shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider.
Asked if he thinks The Wonderful 101 fits his description of a game that can appeal worldwide, Minami points to Viewtiful Joe, a 2003 Capcom game with a similar style and the same director, Hideki Kamiya. "When people think back to Viewtiful Joe, a lot of them say, 'That was a very Japanese-focused game,'" Minami says. "But Viewtiful Joe sold more copies in America than anywhere else."
He's open to change, however. "Maybe we have more to learn about what graphical style appeals most to Americans or Europeans — a more globally appealing art style," he says. "The goal ultimately there is we have to keep the Platinum Games flavor alive while also appealing to people in that way."
Unlike Platinum's initial deal with Sega, its current agreements with Nintendo exist on a game-by-game basis, freeing the rest of the studio to work with other publishers. Minami plans to split Platinum's work between first- and third-party publishers in the future, and currently has a tech team "working on building the right environment inside the company for what next-gen development is going to be." When Platinum's logo appeared on stage at Sony's PlayStation 4 announcement press conference, fans speculated over what that meant, and Minami says it was less about a specific product and more about "our stance towards the platform."
"As far as the company goes, moving forward we're probably going to be open to two different kinds of work," he says. "Obviously we have to work with a publisher. Right now, we're working with both third-party publishers and first-party publishers, and I think that style of who we work with and how we work with them is not going to change in the future. We're on Sony's list because if we're going to work with third-party publishers, we're obviously going to be making multiplatform games and that means that we will be making PS4 games. Obviously we can't go into too much detail about what we're talking about in the future, but no matter whether we're talking with Japanese or Western third-party publishers, we're always talking about multiplatform development with them. So you'll see us on the PS4 eventually."
Minami says that Platinum has also experimented with iOS and Android prototypes, "as side projects." "We're thinking about those and what we can do in that space," he says. "We prototype things a lot. The stuff we prototype for mobile is very low risk, just playing-around stuff. It's almost research projects."
And despite the studio's expansion into external licenses, global appeal, new hardware and potential mobile software, Minami says he's careful not to turn Platinum into the kind of environment he experienced at Capcom in his latter years there, making games that have to be made instead of those people want to make.
"When somebody comes up with a game idea," he says, "we don't put limitations on what those ideas should be."
For Minami, it all comes back to why he founded the company in the first place. He wants to make new things. That might mean picking up a license or working with certain hardware along the way. But as long as Platinum can keep making the kinds of games its staff wants to make, he'll be happy.
Layout: Matt Leone
Image Credits: Tom Connors, Jimmy Shelton, Platinum Games
Editing: Charlie Hall, Russ Pitts