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Still Shinin'

Tetsuya Mizuguchi on creativity, music - and bringing emotion to gaming

Between mouthfuls of a full English breakfast in a hotel on the Brighton seashore, the creator of Rez, Lumines and SEGA Rally is apologising. His keynote at the Develop conference, he says, was marred by severe jetlag which left him struggling for the words he wanted to express his thoughts. We can't say we were bothered, really. On stage the previous day, Tetsuya Mizuguchi led the audience through a whirlwind tour of each of the hit games which have made up his celebrated career, talking about the art, music, literature and other aspects of culture which influenced each one. It was an honest and insightful exploration into the creative process of one of the industry's most creative people - and a few pauses in Mizuguchi's generally excellent English did little to mar the experience.

Since leaving SEGA in 2004 to set up his own studio, Q Entertainment, Mizuguchi has shot even further towards development stardom. The 41 year old from Sapporo created one of the most acclaimed games for the PSP at launch, Lumines; worked with celebrated Nintendo designer Masahiro Sakurai on the cult DS hit Meteos; and was named by Microsoft as one of its triumvirate of key Japanese developers supporting the Xbox 360, alongside Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Street Fighter and Resident Evil co-creator Yoshiki Okamoto.

As a creator, Mizuguchi seems to effortlessly span the experimental and the commercial, with hits such as SEGA Rally and Manx TT sitting in his portfolio alongside the trippy, hardcore favourite Rez and more casual puzzle titles such as Lumines, which recently launched on mobile phone services worldwide. With titles for almost every platform under the sun in the works, Q Entertainment and Mizuguchi show no sign of slowing down their pace of innovation...

Q: GamesIndustry.biz: You've been in the videogames industry since 1990. You worked with SEGA for 14 years, and now you're chief creative officer at Q Entertainment. Why did you get into videogames? You were into all sorts of types of media, but you chose videogames for your career.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi: When I graduated from university - I had studied media aesthetics, and learned about art and entertainment - I always thought about the future of media. I wanted to express something, but the film industry and the music industry were a little bit conservative and nothing there was changing, so I wanted to express something by using new technology or new media. That's why I decided to join the game industry.

At the time it was the 8-bit, 16-bit era, so the visuals were 2D, not rich yet, and the sound technology was poor - just "beep" sound - but I heard that in the future, 3D technology was coming, and the sound was getting much better. That was the kind of technology I could use. Anyway I decided to enter this industry. I felt it was the big paradise, the frontier [for what I wanted to do].

You're probably best known now for the music in your games and your focus on music, but you started out on racing games. How did that happen, and how did you make a sudden transition from games like SEGA Rally to Space Channel 5?

I had a big interest in music and the visual expression [of music], but at the time it was impossible to use that kind of element emotionally. I decided to learn something about how to make a game, and my entrance was SEGA Rally. I learned a lot about how to make a game, about how many people would play it worldwide, and about the culture. Rally was a really good theme to connect with people in different countries.

So, I learned about how to make a game through the few racing games, and learned about the technology that was coming and how home console games were getting fun - a very good environment. I decided to move to consumer production using music, or making characters and writing stories. I felt it was the next step to entertainment.

Have you seen anything of the next-gen version of SEGA Rally being developed in the UK?

No, actually. [smiles]

Music's always been a big passion for you. Did you ever consider maybe becoming a musician instead?

I had a very simple question. You know that many people love music, many people love games, worldwide - so, there must be the chemistry there. Everybody loves music, everybody loves to sing or dance. This is a very basic entertainment form - and music has [always had] that aspect, the interactive aspect - playing an instrument, or singing by yourself.

You've worked with all sorts of creative people - Mondo Grosso, even Michael Jackson in some sense - but were there any you would pick out and say that that was a really fun experience, working with that musician?

It depends on the project and the feeling of the game. Rez was kind of a very deep, trancey experience, and Space Channel 5 is a very fun game - dancing and singing - while Lumines is a puzzle game, not deep like Rez. I think the atmosphere of the game determined the music type and musicians. I want to work with, and have collaborations with, many different types of musicians and artists.

When you start thinking about these games, do you start thinking first about the type of game you want to make and then put music to it, or is the music part of the plan from the very outset? Did you build Rez around trance music, for example, or did that come later?

I think it's both. Most of the time I had the first inspiration inside myself, and I got a further inspiration from the music - it's kind of a chemistry - but sometimes, I got major inspiration and influence from one piece of music. So yeah, I guess it's both.

With Lumines you worked with Mondo Grosso, who's very well known in Japan but a lot less well known outside of Japan, and that introduced the music to a lot of people in the US and Europe. Is that something you want to do again - to take a Japanese artist you really like and introduce that music to the world?

I don't care about that much, really. I'm happy to introduce really good music to people worldwide. The Mondo Grosso track "Shinin'" is the first stage music of Lumines... When I was thinking about Lumines from my first inspiration to finishing up the game - so, in the middle stage of production - I went to the southern island of Okinawa. I watched the stars and the sunset and I listened to music, and Shinin' is really trancey and happy, lovely music to watch the stars to.

I thought it was a good match for Lumines. So I went back to Tokyo and I went to his studio and told him about my thought, and he agreed with me - it was a really good moment. I don't care so much about which country the music's from or who made it, as long as the music's global itself. I want to work with global artists.

When you approach music artists and say to them, "I'm making these games, I would like you to be involved," what's their reaction generally? Or how do they feel about the idea of working on a videogame, which is quite an unusual medium?

It's changing. It's getting better, I mean. Five or six years ago when I was making Rez, it was very tough to explain my thoughts to people when nobody had seen it. So I explained about the kind of synaesthasia, the sound and the music, visual effects with gorgeous, rich visual expression, and rich vibration... And people were like, "What? What are you talking about? You wanted music, but you need the data?"

I needed the cut up sound data to put the sounds into objects in the game, so it's like they're playing instruments. But, if we can make one very good case, this good case succeeds, and I think it's getting easier these days. Now I feel that many people played Rez, like musicians or music industry people, so it's easier to communicate. "Oh okay, I know about Rez!" They find it easier to imagine.

On the topic of Rez, the Rez trance vibrator. Whose idea was that?

That was my idea! [grins]

Why?

That was kind of a joke - but a very serious joke. No sexual meaning! We always listen to music by ear, and you can watch the visuals moving, the dynamics in Rez, so it's kind of a cross-sensation feeling. But we designed vibrations - not body-sonic types, the motion itself, like the visual or sound effects - which were very complicated or three-dimensional, a sensational expression or experience. I wanted to make that.

Of course you can get a good vibration effect from the controller... But not only this, but on other parts of your body, get a good vibration with the music. The motion design - hands and the other parts moving each other like this with the music - we thought this might be fun.

Where are you meant to put it when you're playing?

So, er, I like to feel the vibration with my feet. So I think it's the feet and the hands. It's a good balance. Some people bite them! I think that's really dangerous, actually...

More recently you've been working with Phantagram on Ninety-Nine Nights. You're listed as the producer. What was your actual involvement with creating this project?

My role was the first basic concept - not that one good guy beats the evil side, but the concept was a vice versa. You can play both sides, and this is the reality of war. War is a very difficult thing, it's too real, but I needed to do something to draw the human aspect into my games - I had no confidence [in doing that] before.

Finally we had very high-res, high-definition technology, so I thought, "maybe we can do it [convincingly]". I made the first basic concept, and I worked on the basic storyline, and I directed the non-interactive part - the movies. This is how the collaboration worked with Phantagram. Phantagram is a really good studio, with lots of experience on strategy-based action games like Kingdom Under Fire.

It's quite a different sort of game for you. You can see the relationship between games like Lumines and Rez, but Ninety-Nine Nights is a fantasy action game unlike anything you've done before. Do you want to branch out into other genres more, and do different things?

Hrm. Personally, I don't think so. I'm always chasing basic human instinct, human desires, and games should be entertaining - entertaining in terms of drama, music, acting and interactivity.

I want to find challenging new directions, but I feel the same always - what is the basis? What is the human being ,the lovely, charming point of your game, worldwide? It's about the human being itself. Games should be very global entertainment, with no borders, and no technology limitations - a borderless medium.

You, with SEGA Rally, created one of the first really successful 3D games. When you look at the next-generation of consoles, what do you think is going to change for people playing games and for people creating games?

I can't predict the future, but the one thing I can say is the resolution games use will deliver a very high emotional impact. You can watch a movie three or four times, but when you watch the same movie in high-def you feel something new. The resolution does something to us.

The high-def, the high resolution and 5.1 surround sound - those are a new frontier. But connectivity too - network or mobile, wireless, delivery of content - is really a big aspect of the future. Maybe in ten years kids will be mocking their dads for having gone to shops to buy games at all. I also expect everyone will be using hard disks in future, so that downloading something, buying or recording something will be very normal - people may even experience their first music though downloads. The human desire and instinct for this technology is moving forward.

Are you excited by the things you're going to be able to do in the future?

Definitely, yes!

Tetsuya Mizuguchi is the Chief Creative Officer of Q Entertainment. Interviewed by Rob Fahey.

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