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PlatinumGames broadens its horizons... With a licensed game?

PlatinumGames broadens its horizons... With a licensed game?
August 12, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

For most game developers, a licensed game wouldn't represent a broadening of its horizons, but a narrowing of its opportunities. That's not how PlatinumGames' Atsushi Kurooka, producer of Legend of Korra, sees it.

The developer -- best known for games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance -- is here making its first downloadable game, its first game based on a property from other media, and its first collaboration with a Western publisher (Activision). It's also the company's shortest development cycle ever, Kurooka told Gamasutra.

Yet the Japanese developer is hoping the project will let the studio prove itself in ways it hasn't had the chance to before.

"Working on a licensed IP presented us with another interesting challenge -- how we could best leverage our talents in games while still getting it okayed by the IP holder. That was something we wanted to try, too, in order to broaden our horizons," Kurooka told Gamasutra.

A "standard bearer" rises to the pressure

Osaka-based PlatinumGames has long been outspoken about its drive to be a world-class, independent studio -- as seen in this blog post by president and COO Tatsuya Minami, who wrote: "we aim to be the Japanese standard bearer in the competitive global video game market."

With that in mind, the news that Platinum is now turning to a downloadable game based on an American kids' cartoon is surprising. "Do you think that it's a pity or a sad thing that we're making a game like this?" asked Kurooka, after a few questions on the subject.

"Certainly, people in Japan are often just as negative about video games based on anime or movies as their American counterparts."

Plenty of PlatinumGames fans might be "thinking that it's a surprise, or maybe thinking along more negative lines," he allowed. "Certainly, people in Japan are often just as negative about video games based on anime or movies as their American counterparts," Kurooka says, so he's not surprised by the skepticism toward the announcement, either.

"But making a game based on these really popular franchises is something that, as a developer, puts a lot of pressure on you during development. You face a lot of pressure and a lot of limitations to overcome, and I hope that people understand that. That's what we're striving to overcome now, and we will overcome it."

Working in a new way

For his part, Kurooka himself was associate producer of The Wonderful 101 -- an original game (and new IP) the studio crated for Nintendo. "That was a chance for us to make exactly the kind of original game we wanted," Kurooka says.

But his hope this time is that the studio can mesh that creative spirit together with a spirit of cooperation and produce a game that satisfies Activision -- and other potential clients, no doubt.

"We have experience in creating games from a really artistic perspective, and with this project, we'd like to demonstrate to publishers that we're just as capable of working as a team and providing a product that we're both happy with," Kurooka says.

Well, here's some good news: "I'm not exaggerating when I say these guys have been a dream to work with," says Robert Conkey, Activision's producer on the game, a Japanese-speaker who's based out of the U.S.

"Overseas publishers often think in different ways from their Japanese counterparts."

Working with a Western publisher is "completely different, of course" than anything the studio has experienced working with partners like Sega, Kojima Productions, or Nintendo: "overseas publishers often think in different ways from their Japanese counterparts," Kurooka says.

But according to Conkey, that hasn't been a problem so far (except for people on both sides of the Pacific losing sleep thanks to the time difference.) That's because Platinum knows its own game inside out -- so well that the studio routinely identifies problems -- and, more importantly, solutions -- before the publisher or licensor even brings them up.

"Even though there's a cultural gap, it very often feels like we're on the same page when it comes to problem areas, and often we'll suggest a solution and they'll come up with an even better one," Conkey says.

"While there are these restrictions on what we can do, both Activision and Nickelodeon have been very easy partners to work with; they mostly agreed to everything we proposed, even the really selfish stuff," Kurooka says, with a laugh.

"We know these guys are really good at what they do; they know how to make a game and make it fun. We take it from that point of view, making sure that we're not cutting down on the fun in order to make it keep in line with something not as important. It's always a discussion, and we're always trying to reach the best possible answer," says Conkey.

Platinum has even been able to create a new character -- the game's last boss -- from scratch, in collaboration with the animators, licensor, and publisher. "Once we had what he looked like, they got to go and design the whole thing themselves -- the moves, the overall look," says Conkey. "This is a very Platinum-type fight, certainly," Kurooka says.

A game of balance

The Korra license, Activision's mandates, and what Platinum itself wants to do with the game -- that's one balancing act. But there are also fans of the cartoon franchise, players who know and love PlatinumGames, and action game fans in general. The developer is has to worry about everyone who might be interested in the game alongside a new style of development.

As Conkey says, "Korra is a unique brand in that its audience is incredibly wide; it's supposed to be a kids' show, and kids do love it, but a very large number of its fans are older."

"I think we have already demonstrated to the world that we're capable of creating really good original games," Kurooka says. "There's certainly a gap" between developing an original title like The Wonderful 101 and The Legend of Korra, he admits, which might be exacerbated by the short development cycle.

But on the plus side, Platinum developed a genuine enthusiasm for the license. Although the show has not been broadcast in Japan, its setting, characters, and action impressed the team, Kurooka says. "We thought the depth of the world setting was something you really wouldn't expect from a TV show for kids. ... Looking at this world, we at Platinum thought that turning this into a game would be a great use of our abilities; it was something we'd be proud to work on, and that's what led to us accepting it."

No excuses, then.

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