Renowned Japanese developer Platinum Games finds itself embarking on a new chapter, one in which it no longer relies on third parties to bring its titles to market.
For the first ten years of its life, the studio produced a series of critically acclaimed games for a variety of publishers - yet these partnerships have left Platinum with very few options to follow up on this work. While Nintendo has supported the developer in the creation of Bayonetta 3, rights to titles like MadWorld and Vanquish remain with Sega.
In 2017, the firm announced a dramatic shift in its strategy. No longer aiming to produce one title per year, it would instead focus on creating a game to which it completely owns the rights. By January 2018, head of development Atsushi Inaba revealed Platinum Games was in fact working on two new IPs, both smaller-scale projects akin to that of Ninja Theory's game-changing Hellblade.
"Even when I was making the first Bayonetta, there were some frustrations. We have the confidence and desire to make something that is 100% ours"
Hideki Kamiya, Platinum Games
We caught up with both Inaba and his fellow Platinum co-founder Hideki Kamiya at Reboot Develop 2018 to find out why such a shift has been necessary.
"When you have a publisher and they fund the entire game, it comes with strings attached and those strings are that sometimes you can't make a sequel," Inaba tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Sometimes it's all up to them. So to really have control over what you've made, you have to fund it and make it yourself. That allows you a lot of freedom, a lot of different options. That's why, if you're a developer of our size, it's why you would want to do more self-publishing and self-funding."
Kamiya adds: "Wanting to create our own content and our own IP... Even when I was making the first Bayonetta, there were some frustrations that were occurring between not funding it ourselves and being controlled in certain areas by other companies. We have the confidence and the selfish desire to make something that is ours and control it 100 per cent - we've had that for a long time."
This creative desire may have been long in the making, but undoubtedly the biggest push was Microsoft's surprise cancellation of Scalebound, a long-in-development new fantasy IP that Platinum was working on for the Xbox firm. The impact of this move by Microsoft cannot be understated - had it not been for smash hit Nier: Automata, which released just a few months later, Platinum Games would have faced financial bankruptcy.
Again, Nier is another property owned by another publisher (in this case, Square Enix), leaving the studio with no say over what happens next. It's this latest example of Platinum's lack of control, as much as Scalebound's cancellation, that steels Inaba's resolve to pursue fully-owned IP.
"It's not been one individual event, it's been all of them collected together," he says. "You definitely realise if you're a creator and you want to give the director all the control, if he really wants to be able to make something 100 per cent free, the only way you can do it is this way. Because there are strings attached - no matter what - if you're going to do it on somebody else's dime."
Platinum Games is cautious, however, about severing ties with publishers completely. The developer has been entrusted with some of the biggest IP in gaming, resulting in Konami's Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Nintendo's Star Fox Zero, and its efforts on licensed titles have even seen Platinum work on tie-ins for Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Legend of Korra. It's a line of work Inaba is keen to keep open.
"You need to have diversity as a developer to be able to work on a wide variety of different business models and types of games. It's how you prepare yourself for the future"
Atsushi Inaba, Platinum Games
"We're not opposed to doing licensed games at all," he says. "It has to be a licence we like - everyone in the company has one or two licences they think is really cool and would love to work on.
"If that connects, and the opportunity is there, we'd certainly pursue it. Or if there's an opportunity to do something with a licence that evolved it, expanded it, do something that had not been done before - which is often very hard with licences because there are lots of limitations preventing you from doing that - then that would be another creative reason for us to potentially go in that direction."
In the meantime, Platinum Games is concentrating on its first announced project: World of Demons, a free-to-play mobile action title developed in partnership with DeNA, and with more than a whiff of Okami about it. The similarity is no accident; much of the talent that formed Platinum Games worked at Okami developer Clover Studios, including Inaba and Kamiya.
The choice to shift from publisher-owned titles to mobile free-to-play ones is a dramatic change from what Platinum has worked on in the past, but arguably a much safer one. Mobile titles operate on a very different model, designed to monetise their players over a longer period of time rather than concentrating on a launch window. Plus, the ubiquity of mobile phones opens Platinum to a far broader audience compared to the platform-exclusives it has previously created.
Is World of Demons a security blanket, then? A title built out of necessity to potentially fund Platinum Games as it forges its own path? Inaba says this is not the case.
"We're not in the mindset that in order to do the stuff you want to do, you need to do stuff you don't want to," he says. "We wouldn't do something we wouldn't want to do. From our perspective, the separation of who was going to do what on this project was quite clear: we're doing the stuff we're good at, and DeNA is doing the stuff they're good at.
"It's not like you just have the parts and a blueprint, then you assemble them like a car. I don't want games to be that way"
Hideki Kamiya, Platinum Games
"We feel you need to have diversity as a developer to be able to work on a wide variety of different business models and types of games. It's how you prepare yourself for the future."
Kamiya adds: "If it's fun as a game, then it's definitely worth doing. We don't feel that just because it's mobile or free-to-play that we can't appeal to our fans or make a good game. That's not how we feel at all."
While it's still a rarity on mobile, it's unsurprising that World of Demons follows in the same action-heavy vein as previous Platinum titles. The studio has built its reputation largely on frantic but fluid combat systems and satisfying battles that exhilarate players around the world.
This contributed significantly to Nier: Automata's success, although when we spoke to that game's lead designer Takahisa Taura, he spoke of the genre itself becoming stale - suggesting such titles have barely changed since Ocarina of Time or the original Devil May Cry. Since this encompasses many of Kamiya's titles, does he agree?
"When I hear that, it sounds like a young, hot-blooded creator issuing challenges to himself as much as everybody else," he says. "If he's able to overcome what he thinks is not much evolution in the 3D action space and create something that does that, then obviously that's cool.
"My feeling is that games themselves... they're not just mass-produced things. They're art, they're part of the developer's personality. It's not like you just have the parts and a blueprint, then you assemble them like a car. I don't want games to be that way. I want games to be about each person's individuality, [so] players can feel the creativity that comes from the person directing it.
"That's the way I want to look at games, that's how they need to be made. Obviously, that comes at a cost - there's risk, you have to do thing iteratively. Everything you try that's never been done before can totally blow up in your face. Any time you leave something up to one person, maybe they're not getting it done the right way. There are so many different things that can happen, but if you can't get that director's colour, if you can't do innovative things like that, ultimately you lose out."
At Reboot, the Platinum duo sketchily discussed plans for a title that could go beyond the action genre, perhaps even define a new type of gameplay entirely, but neither were able to offer more details as this project is still in an extremely early stage.
The desire to create the best games possible is apparent in even the shortest conversation with Platinum Games, and it makes the studio's determination to control its own destiny all the more understandable. Yet it's an ambition that evokes caution from those who have followed the its history. For all the critical acclaim it has received, several games have failed match such success commercially - hence the brush with bankruptcy, or Sega's decision to pass the Bayonetta baton to Nintendo.
In some instances, this is easily explained: Star Fox Zero, for example, suffered from Wii U's low install base. But with nine of Platinum's 13 titles achieving a Metacritic score of 75 or higher (plus two more that are only a couple of points behind), it's baffling why the studio has been brought so close to the brink. Perhaps Inaba can explain this disparity?
"I wish someone would tell us, because if I knew that we'd be making a lot of money," he laughs. "At the end of the day, we may not know what it is but at least you stand a better chance of making a big hit if the game is good. Our goal is the game: make good games - that will never change."