Crispy Gamer

Examining the Infinite Noise of the Inner Soul: The Keiichi Yano Interview

You'd think that two characters having a laser beam-infested guitar battle, or male cheerleaders keeping the beat and saving the stressed-out people of the world would be odd concepts for a game's design, but they're quite common for a small Japanese game developer named iNiS whose first two music game series have garnered cult followings among gamers. Both the Gitaroo Man and Ouendan (Elite Beat Agents outside of Japan) franchises have put iNiS in a small handful of developers who have evolved what we now know as the music game.

After a meal near iNiS' offices in Nakamegero that included such dishes as tripe, chicken and horse sashimi -- meals that were just as strange and delicious to an American gamer as iNiS' game concepts -- I got a chance to catch up with iNiS co-founder and game designer Keiichi Yano.

We get the history behind this boutique developer, learn the origins of Gitaroo Man and Ouendan/Elite Beat Agents, and find out what's better, Rock Band or Guitar Hero, in this extensive interview.

Crispy Gamer: I guess I wanted to start out and get the history about the company and your history in the videogame industry. I know you went to USC and were a Jazz major. Is that correct?

Keiichi Yano: I was a Jazz Studies major, and I played the saxophone.

Crispy Gamer: Was it something you just grew up with?

Yano: I've been in music since the 1st grade, and playing the saxophone since the 5th grade. So yes, I've been doing it a long time. Interestingly enough, I didn't go into USC as a Jazz major, actually; I went in as a mechanical engineering major. I love cars. [laughs] I'm either doing music or I'm building a car. [laughs] It's got to be one or another, right? Get into Mechanical Engineering and go to my Mechanical Engineering 101 class, and it f***ing kicks me in the ass. It's like the first day, and I'm like, "What the f***? I must be in the wrong class!" So I did that for about six months. I was also in the SC Jazz band, so I was kind of doing that on the side. One of the professors said, "Hey, look, we'll give you a scholarship -- why don't you just come over here?" I'm there!

Crispy Gamer: So where were you born?

Yano: I was born in Tokyo, where I lived until I was two. The first place I went was Hawaii; I stayed there until I was five and then went to L.A.

Crispy Gamer: What does iNiS mean?

Yano: It means a lot of things, actually. iNiS is an acronym and it stands for "infinite Noise of the inner Soul." So it's kind of profound. [laughs] What we really want it to say is -- if you've seen our logo, the red square, there's three circles that get bigger as they go out. infinite Noise we mean things -- creative feelings, juices, ideas -- it's all these things that people have in them. It's of the inner soul, so it's in your heart. The logo stands for -- the small one might be one person's idea, but when you let it out it starts to reverberate and harmonize with other things and it gets bigger. The idea is the company starts with a very good idea and has it reverberate across.

Crispy Gamer: Initially how big was your company, and how big is iNiS now?

Yano: We started out at four people. It was myself, my wife was CEO, and her brother. I brought one of my graphics guys from a company that I was at before we started iNiS. We are at our eleventh year right now, so it's been a long time. We are now 35 going on almost 40. We've grown quite a bit, but not as big as you think. The growth is very gradual. Our big stint probably came within the last three years, probably.

Crispy Gamer: Where were you before you started iNiS?

Yano: I was at a multimedia company -- we were doing multimedia titles. I am actually not from the game industry. Gitaroo Man was my first adventure into the game industry to begin with. We hadn't even done games; I had never built a game before that. I knew the technology. I liked games and I always wanted to do a game, but our forte at the time was multimedia and music.

Crispy Gamer: How big was the team for Gitaroo Man?

Yano: That ended up being 25, but we started out with an eight-person team, and steadily grew to about 25 towards the end.

Crispy Gamer: How about for Ouendan?

Yano: Ouendan was huge. If you take all the outsourcing and all that -- if you saw the credit roll -- it's huge. It's hundreds of people, actually. It takes a lot of people to do all of the art. It's a very hand-done process. So, literally, hundreds of people.

Crispy Gamer: Do you want to remain small? Do you like being small?

Yano: I think there's a coolness factor in being boutique. We do games that are kind of our own thing. I found recently, in trying to get to this 40-person team size, that diversity is nice. When you have a lot of people and everyone is kind of different, it's a different ball game, and I found that to be very fun. I think we're still able to keep our creative juices flowing, but now we're specialized and diversified at the same time, which is very interesting for me. It's great.

Crispy Gamer: How does an independent and boutique developer like iNiS survive in a market like this?

Yano: That's a good question, actually. I don't know. It's definitely a lot of luck, I think. Being at the right place at the right time. Doing the things we just happen to be doing at the time. I mean, if one thing hadn't happened, we could have been so gone so fast. There could be any number of points that I can remember that we would have been gone like that. I would have been stuck with a big debt on my back. [laughs] Fortunately, we were keen that music games were going in a certain direction. Guys like Alex, Mizuguchi-san and myself, we were kind of doing different things, but all progressed the genre. I think it all worked out in the end, and we were lucky.

Crispy Gamer: So where'd the idea for Gitaroo Man come from?

Yano: As music games came out they were mostly about the rhythm. I like the rhythm, but as a student of jazz, I was always more fond of the melody. To me, when I hear a good song, I don't remember the beat, I remember the melody. So I always wanted to do a music game that had something to do with the melody, and that you were playing with the melody. I just happened to run across this movie called "Crossroads" (1986). I don't know if you've happened to hear of it. I think it's the guy from Karate Kid. He makes a deal with the devil, and then he battles Steve Vai in a big guitar battle at the end of the movie. I just thought it was very jazzy. Improvisation battles, right? Hey what if we did a guitar battle game? What if we have beams come out of the guitar? It would look like you were battling. That's where it came from. Have two people battling with guitars with beams coming out of them.

Crispy Gamer: Were you happy with how the PSP version turned out?

Yano: In some ways yes, and some ways no. One of the things I heard about the PlayStation 2 version was that it's really hard to control the analog stick. But in the PSP version, the throw of the stick is really short, not to mention it's right next to the screen. You have a better sense of the direction of the stick versus the direction of the interface. So I think that made it much easier to play was a really good part of it. The thing I didn't like as much is that we had to tone town a lot of the graphics, and it was our first PSP stint, so we were relatively inexperienced with the platform at the time. That probably had a lot to do with it. I always thought it would be a great game for a portable system, and especially on the PSP, it sounds nice and it's got media that can withstand the content of the game. I think overall it turned out pretty well.

Crispy Gamer: Obviously, that game put you guys on the map, but the game that really blew you guys out of the water was Ouendan. That game was huge on the import scene -- even import stores consider it one of their best-selling imports. What were some of your inspirations for that title?

Yano: That title actually came about from multiple people, actually. The original idea to have these male cheerleader characters -- which, for the record, is fact in Japan. These are not fictional characters, these are fact. The idea came from one of our graphic designers, actually. He wanted to do a game. He didn't think it was a music game at the time. He wanted to do a game that featured these male cheerleaders, but he wasn't really a game designer so he didn't have the game design, per se. I think a lot of us thought that it was an interesting idea and we should try and do something with that.

A whole bunch of us at iNiS were at E3 the year that the DS was first announced and thought that it was a cool platform. And I thought, hey, there's two screens on this platform -- wouldn't it be cool to have the cheerleaders and whatever they do affect what happens on the top screen? One of the first ideas I had was that cheerleaders in Japan are usually at baseball games. We could have a baseball game that's running on top in which you're not actually batting or pitching, just playing. The Ouendan would kind of determine whether you were winning or losing.

Later on one of our music guys said, "Why don't we try turning this into a music game, because there's always music involved with Ouendan?" So we did that, and we created a flash prototype, and that is what we showed Nintendo. It's funny, when we showed it, I showed it on my notebook, and I had a pencil, and I'm like, 'Try this out; it feels like you're playing it.' So they had this pencil -- it's one of those mechanical pencils -- and they were sitting there poking the screen, and I'm like, "No, no!" [laughs] But you could tell that they got it. I think that's when we knew we had something there.

Crispy Gamer: How did you get involved with Nintendo?

Yano: We've always kind of had a little bit of a relationship. I had pitched a few games to them before with no success. [laughs] I knew a couple of people there, and I thank them to this day, but they were willing to help us out. When the DS was starting to kick off, I called that person up and said, "Hey, I've got what I think is a great DS game idea, and I'd like to present it." He set that up for us and got together all the people that could make a decision, and that's how that kind of got started.

Crispy Gamer: I remember being at that E3, with Nintendo debuting the DS --

Yano: With a two- or three-hour line.

Crispy Gamer: Yeah, and Sony showing off the PSP. I and everyone else who saw the first version of the DS -- which was big, clunky and ugly as sin compared to the PSP, which was sleek and super-sexy -- we more or less thought that the PSP would crush the DS. Sleek and sexy is a bit more attractive than bulky and not as technically powerful. Why did you guys go with the DS?

Yano: I think it was the interface that really did it for us. I just saw a lot of potential with the touch-pen interface with music games because it seems like a no-brainer.? Pen on screen -- very percussive. It immediately struck me that that seemed like the platform on which we wanted to do that game. We don't usually say, "Oh, that's an awesome platform. Let's try to think of something for it." We are always thinking of game ideas and we always think along with each idea, "What's the best platform on which to execute that?" Different games I think have different platforms for which they're suited. We try to make that match, because in the end I think that's really important. Not just the technical specs, but from a cultural standpoint. Sony's culture, Microsoft's culture, Nintendo's culture -- very different, right? Those cultures define what the platform is a lot of the time. I think when you can marry a game idea that's good with that culture, then I think that's when it really starts to gel and it makes sense.

Crispy Gamer: The game was critically well-received, and I was actually in Japan when it came out and I picked it up. Were there any thoughts of sticking to the original game design in terms of the game world when bringing it over to the States?

Yano: No, there really wasn't. As we knew a lot of the gamers kind of gravitated towards that, if we were going to ever have a chance with less savvy gamers, we had to change the game world. The idea of male cheerleaders might ring a bell in some circles, [laughs], but probably for most it wouldn't.

Crispy Gamer: Were you happy with sales in each of the territories?

Yano:Are we ever happy? I mean, we're never happy. For us, this is our second music game. I was pretty happy. We didn't do the numbers that we would have wanted to, I think. But we're always aiming higher. I was happy that Nintendo let us do it in the way that we did it. Hopefully, we'll just keep at it.

Crispy Gamer: In Japan, Ouendan's soundtrack had a wide variety of J-pop, and in the United States it ran the gamut from Bowie, to Chicago, to the Village People. How do you go about finding a soundtrack?

Yano: Oh, I hate that question. [laughs] It's a multi-part process. I can't speak to the details about it, but there are songs that just naturally work with the game design, and there are songs that just work with the scenarios that we have. We come up with the scenarios first and then we try to match a song that will work with it. A lot of it has to do with what the underlying story is, and we try to match sound or the music or what's being portrayed by the artist of the song with the story. That's one of the major criteria.

Crispy Gamer: What are you favorite songs for each of the three games?

Yano: When we first did Ouendan, one of the songs that I knew we had to have was "Guts da ze!!" (Ulfuls). I knew we just had to have that. It's perfect for the game. In terms of Elite Beat, I personally like the Chicago recording. It took a long time to do, and it just got stuck in my heart. Ouendan 2 is probably the hardest one. Probably Kibun Joujou -- the "Mihimaru GT" song.

Crispy Gamer: The import scene for finding U.S. games in Japan, is pretty small. There's a Hollywood Games place in Akihabara that sells U.S. games, and you can find Turning Pointt on the Xbox 360 for 9,000 yen. [laughs] However, I noticed that Elite Beat was on sale at regular stores all over the place here. Were you surprised that that game came back over here?

Yano: I was surprised, yeah. I mean, I felt that if we released Ouendan 2 then [sales for the original] Ouendan [would improve]. I was pleasantly surprised that regular stores would have all three of them, so that was kind of cool. In terms of how the game was received over here, I really don't know. I haven't talked to a lot of people who have played Elite Beat over here. I hope they liked it, for people that like American songs.

Crispy Gamer: Nintendo of America's Reggie Fils-Aime stated in an interview that he felt that Elite Beat Agents would sell better than it did. Fans of the series would obviously like to see more, but now that you've done three games, is this possibly a series you'd like to revisit someday, or do you want to branch out and do different things?

Yano: I would definitely like to do another one. I think it would be fun, and, hopefully there will be an opportunity at some point to do that.

Crispy Gamer: That being said, is your other game, Gitaroo Man, something you'd like to revisit? What about re-releasing the original on the PSN or XBLA?

Yano: I don't know if we'd do the same exact thing for download. It would be a big download, so I don't know if I'd want to do that. And now we could do it better. I've always thought that the game mechanic was of its own, and if done better with another interesting game -- maybe not in the Gitaroo Man world, but with the same mechanic and better game design overall -- I'd love to do something like that at some point.

Crispy Gamer: What would you say are some of the big differences between working with a company like Koei and working with a company like Nintendo?

Yano:I think there are always certain advantages when you're working with a platform holder versus a publisher. Obviously publishers that aren't tied to platforms can do multiplatform, so that's a different kind of advantage, but I think that when the publisher is the platform holder, there are certain advantages that you will get, especially with a company like ours, because we're trying to do new things all of the time. Platform holders want two things: They want something that's going to define their platform, and they want it to be new. So, for us to be able to enter into that challenge is always exciting. In that sense, I really like working with platform holders.

Crispy Gamer: What are your thoughts on downloadable games? Do you think there are any advantages to developing for WiiWare versus XBLA or PSN?

Yano: I don't know if one platform has an advantage more than another, but I definitely think there is a lot to be had for digital distribution. Eventually, I think all games are going to be that. It might take a lot of time, but eventually I kind of assume that that's going to be the case. I'm just waiting for who's going to be the first platform to release a non-disc-based game console.

Crispy Gamer: The Phantom! Oh wait.

Yano: [laughs] There ya go. Oh, wait, it's not out yet. [laughs] I'm a strong believer. I'd like to try and do something like that once.

Crispy Gamer: Can you explain what nFactor is and what MixJuice is?

Yano: nFactor is our game engine. We're in the second version right now, so it's nFactor 2. It's a next-generation cross-platform game engine. It has all the bells and whistles that you would generally expect. If people have seen our Web site, well, it's even better now with next-generation rendering quality. It's available for Wii, PC and Xbox 360 at the moment.

Crispy Gamer: Is that something that you're licensing out or using internally?

Yano: Actually, it's an internal project, definitely. We did license it to one company. They're just very close to us, so we let them use it. That game that they did is going to come out very soon on the Wii. We probably wouldn't do that as a business. We don't have the resources. That's that.

MixJuice is our audio engine. It can generate high-quality music on the fly given very simple parameters. The layperson can basically tweak a couple knobs, and you get a song. It's our auto music generation technology that hopefully we'll use in some games at some point. We haven't been able to use it in a game, yet. It was the audio demo for the original Xbox for developers.

Crispy Gamer: Didn't you also work on the video chat for the original Xbox? [Released in Japan only.]

Yano:We did the video chat UI. We designed that. We've kind of had a long-running relationship with Microsoft. We did that, we did localizations for some of their RPGs. We've done a number of projects with them.

Crispy Gamer: It's known that you have at least an Xbox 360 game in development --

Yano: That's what people think. [laughs]

Crispy Gamer: -- and it's rumored that you also have a Wii project at this time. Can you say when we might hear about these games? Would we hear about these games this year?

Yano: I can't speak to that, as much as I would like to.

Crispy Gamer: Microsoft's obviously made a huge effort with the Xbox alone, but with the Xbox 360 here in Japan even more. Do you think the 360 has any honest chance in this country?

Yano: Hard to say. I always think there's a chance. It's really never too late because it only really takes one game to change the minds of consumers. People thought that the PlayStation 3 would do badly, but wait until some of these games come out. It'll be fine, probably. The Wii, everybody thought there's no technology in it. It's going to be shitty. All it took was Wii Sports! [laughs] I think people can say what they will, but it always only takes one title to turn around people's minds. The question is, is Microsoft doing anything to build that one game? I don't know the answer to that. Yeah, I think it's all it will come down to.

Crispy Gamer: Do you think a third party will ever have any success on the Wii?

Yano: Yes, I do, because as there have been third parties on the DS that have been very successful. I think a lot of publishers will be very successful on the Wii.

Crispy Gamer: But the audience isn't traditional. It is the non-gamer that's picking up the system for Wii Fit, which has sold almost 2 million, and Wii Sports. What do you think it's going to take a third party to appeal to this new audience, not just in this country but around the world?

Yano: I think Nintendo is always great at coming up with concepts that may seem zany at first glance, but they just really follow through on it. Because they are the guys that came up with the hardware concept, I think it's just easier to do, and obviously they have the history. They've been thinking about both ends -- the hardware and the software -- at the same time.

Developers and publishers now I think understand what that is, so I think the next wave of Wii games that come out ? you're definitely see a lot of "Me Too's" but I think there will be a couple of titles that, "Wow, that's a great way to use the console." Those titles I think will be successful, because it is such a fresh concept. When this many people pick something up, they'll play it for Wii Sports, but if there's a game that comes out that was worth their attention, no problem.

Crispy Gamer: Do you think it's possible with the interface of the Wii that you guys could potentially pull something off like Ouendan or Elite Beat on the Wii?

Yano: Is it possible? It might be very hard to do the exact same game design. I've read posts before where it said, "Oh yeah, you could use the remote to poke the screen," or whatever. I don't know if that would be the greatest game design, but there are definitely a lot of interesting ideas that can be had from a music game design perspective with those controllers. Wii Music is coming out. I'm sure there will be others.

Crispy Gamer: Rock Band or Guitar Hero? Which one do you like better?

Yano: [laughs] Are you talking about Rock Band and Guitar Hero III? Personally I draw the line at Guitar Hero II. I don't know if I totally like Guitar Hero III's note charts. I tend to think from a musician's perspective. I think that Guitar Hero II was much more musical [than GH 3], and Rock Band has that same flavor, it feels more musical. I don't really get that with Guitar Hero III, personally, but that's just me.

I'd have to say Rock Band. Just because I'm a musician, and I know just how awesome it is to be on stage with a band, and they've just really done a great job of recreating that feeling. I really like Rock Band. It's a great game.

Crispy Gamer: Music games have come a long way in the past. What do you think is going to be the future for music videogames?

Yano: I think the music genre will have to survive as a genre, and not just singular titles as we have today. If you look at the world market right now, it's Guitar Hero, Rock Band is coming up, and SingStar are probably the big three music games that are out right now, but they're all based on similar premises. There's some type of thing that you play against, and it's a simulation of sorts. But I think for the music game genre to expand out, there have to be other ideas that have to come in to the mix and probably provide a bit of fresh air there.

I think it's already been established that music is a great vehicle to carry games. We all love music. We live in an iPod generation. It's very natural for us to associate our digital lifestyles with music, and games are part of that digital life. I think it's a matter of somebody coming up with a different formula which would establish the music game genre as a solid genre.

Crispy Gamer: Is that something you guys are working towards?

Yano: Definitely. Whether we're doing it now or not, we're always experimenting. We're always coming up with new game ideas. Yeah, personally I want to be the first! [laughs] I want to come up with an idea that's not what you see in music games today. I think there's a future for it, and if we play our cards right, and serve our gamers right, it will continue to survive, and you'll see interesting things. I think developers that are in the music game space are very creative. They're creative in a different way than traditional game developers are. Like first-person shooters, or RTSes, it's a different mindset. With music, inherently there is kind of a groove. You either have it or you don't. When you can present that groove, it's always entertaining. I'd like to see more people getting into it. I think it's definitely important to have a variety of games out there coming from different people and being successful.