Game Developer magazine's Brandon Sheffield reflects on the life of creative mastermind Kenji Eno, who sadly passed away last month. (This article will be printed in Game Developer's April issue.)
On February 20, 2013, the game industry lost one of its few great iconoclasts. This was the date when Kenji Eno, known for games like D, Enemy Zero, and Real Sound, passed away, leaving a legacy as a creative force that would not be tamed, and which would not bow down. And in our industry, we desperately need more people like him.
Warp to the past
Eno began creating run of the mill action games in the NES era, but quickly became frustrated with both the style of game and the size of the company, as it grew from 10 to 30 people. He quit his stable job, and formed his own company (called EIM) because he wanted to control his creative destiny.
It soon became evident that in order to keep his employees fed, he would have to make licensed games, which, as he told consumer publication EGM in his last big interview in 2008, made him so upset that he became "mentally unstable." This was so far counter to what he wanted to do that he couldn’t even go into his own office.
He wanted to work on original things — after all, that's why he became independent in the first place — so he closed the company and left the industry entirely for a time. He began working at an auto magazine, but the itch to return to games was too strong. Upon his return, he founded Warp, the developer for which he's best known.
Though quitting a job or closing a company because of creative integrity is already rather rare, it's at Warp that he made his biggest impression. When creating the game D, he wanted to shock players out of their complacency, and make them think differently about games. (The shocker, in this case, was a scene involving cannibalism.) He figured the censors wouldn't allow this scene to pass, so he submitted a clean version of his gold master after the deadline, knowing that he would have to hand-deliver the final disc by plane.
The clean version was approved, and while he was in-flight he switched the discs to the one he really wanted to show the world, sneaking his cannibalism scene into the game under the publisher's nose. The game then went on to sell one million copies in Japan alone.
It's rash, and may seem irresponsible to some -- it would most likely be the subject of a lawsuit, in this day and age. But how many of us would go so far to create something we believe in? We've seen a few in the last few years, and most of them have gone completely independent, eschewing the traditional game industry entirely. In many ways, Eno was the prototypical indie developer, shouting in the face of authority.
His next big game, Enemy Zero, was meant to be for the PlayStation. His team had already started developing for Sony's platform, but he was upset with how Sony had short-changed his shipment of D, shipping less than a third of what they said they would. So he took his revenge at a Sony press conference. As he walked out on stage to announce his new title, the screen behind him showed a PlayStation logo... that quietly warped into a Sega Saturn logo, and he went on to announce his game for Sony's rival platform, at their own event, simply because they'd backed out of a promise.
He wasn't going to take any slight lying down. How often have we all had to grin and bear similar indignities, with no way to vent our frustrations?
When Enemy Zero was finally released on the Saturn, he made a limited run of 20 special editions, and if you paid $2,000 for one, he would hand-deliver the game to you. They sold out immediately, and Eno drove his truck across Japan delivering games to his customers. He had always wanted to have a direct relationship with players of his games, and here now was a way. In the current day and age, this is a common high-tier Kickstarter reward — hang out with the developers for a bit, and get your game hand-delivered. Eno did this in 1996.
For his next game, Sega wanted to make it an exclusive — whatever it was. Eno had recently met with some sight-impaired folks who liked to play action games, and he asked himself, "What if you made a game that the blind and the sighted could play equally?" So he created the game Real Sound, which is an audio-only retail game, and made Sega promise that if he made the game exclusive to them, they would donate 1,000 Saturns to blind people, and he would supply 1,000 copies of the game. Again, this was an unusual idea for 1996, but he felt the stagnancy of the industry, and went to great lengths to shake it up.
His next game, D2, came during the next generation of consoles; D2 had moved to the Dreamcast, and he found himself making a "normal" game again. As he told EGM, "I had all of these kinds of ideas [in the past] because I was seeing the game industry from the outside. But around the time of D2, I felt like I was getting too close to the inside; I felt like I was turning into a normal game creator." And so around 1999 he left the game industry yet again, to refresh his perspective, becoming a creative consultant for a variety of industries.
But he just couldn't leave games completely alone. I first met him in 2005 at an E3 event, even though he wouldn't go on to release another game for several years. He impressed me as a wild force of personality and eccentricities, but also of principle. His urge to create was strong, so eventually he did come back to games in 2008, but not as the powerhouse he was before. Some of the fire was gone - Eno was no longer making headlines or fiercely challenging industry norms - but the creative force remained.
Just last year, for example, I was at a potluck in Brooklyn with some interactive media artist-types, and one was telling me about how his company had gotten a lot of press and recognition for an iPhone game sendup about just chasing one pixel around on a screen. They had just made this thing in early 2012. "That’s funny," I said, "Kenji Eno did this already, way back in 2009, with a game called One Dot Enemies." He may not have been the firecracker he was earlier in his career, but he was still blazing the occasional trail.
After Eno's death, I was speaking to NanaOn-Sha president Masaya Matsuura about the loss, and he told me this: "[English psychedelic rock pioneer] Kevin Ayers also passed away, on February 18th, and a note was found by his bed which said, 'You can't shine if you don’t burn.' These words fit with Kenjis memories for me."
Who will carry on?
The traditional game industry — the sector characterized by the developer/publisher relationship, big budgets, and a focus on developing for consoles — is shrinking, and it won’t be saved by the companies pumping millions of dollars into sequels.
If the traditional game industry wants to survive, it needs to identify and support its iconoclasts — people who believe in what they're doing so much that they will risk everything to make it happen. Eno proved you could be an iconoclast and still be successful. He proved that you can have a wildly creative career and still be a success.
At the moment, we have plenty of iconoclasts—but aren't they all indies? Notch, for example has blazed his own path with Minecraft and its business model. It's not because he fights the power, but because he doesn't care about "the power." He has rocketed past most of the big companies that keep developers under their thumbs. But he's outside the traditional game industry.
What does Sega or Sony or Activision mean to him, other than companies that occasionally make games he might like to play? Who will be Activision's champion now? When the founders of Infinity Ward go on to sue their former employers, only to get funding from EA, can our current infrastructure even support such dissidents?
Kenji Eno was that sort of champion, and now that he's gone, we need more people like him. Lots more, if we want traditional games to evolve and change with the times. We need more people who are willing to take the world on their backs in order to make it move. Maybe we need to take breaks from games and get some outside perspective, like Eno did. Maybe we need to believe in ourselves more, and believe in the power of our own ideas. But no matter what, we need to stop spinning in place with genre and theme and play style, and move forward. I'll leave you with another line from Eno, given during that EGM interview.
"I want to move forward. You have a short life; you're going to die someday. So I don't want to waste my time looking back on something I did in the past."