Depending on the kind of games you play, you may not heard of them, but Tokyo-based Indies Zero have developed some of the most interesting Nintendo DS games out there.
The most high-profile one to date is, of course, Retro Game Challenge, published by Xseed in the American market (and Namco Bandai in Japan). But Indies Zero first called attention to themselves with an older DS rhythm “game” published by Nintendo — Electroplankton. You might also have heard of Indies Zero through the more recent Personal Trainer: Cooking.
Recently, Siliconera had a chance to interview Indies Zero Representative Director and founder, Masanobu Suzui, about how he established the company, how they go about developing games, and what their thoughts on the games market and the future are.
Indies Zero was founded in 1997, wasn’t it? Could you tell us a little about the company’s background? How did it come about?
Indies Zero Representative Director, Masanobu Suzui: No, no, I can’t just talk a little about it! I’ll start from the very beginning and include a bit of my personal history as well.
I first truly entered the world of game creation for a Nintendo Electro-Communications Game Seminar held at the university I was attending at the time. I had created a game for the Famicom gaming system. I later reached out to two programmers I knew from the seminar, saying, “I want to create a company!” This was the impetus behind the creation of the company. At the time, I was employed at Bandai [now Namco Bandai]. It was still my first year there.
Ever since I was a kid, I loved games and toys. Both in the present and in the past I subscribed to the popular manga magazines CoroCoro Comics and Shounen Jump, but I would buy the popular toys serialized in them and become engrossed in playing with them.
I bought so many figurines [lit. plastic models] and electronic games that I would have to “take loans” out of my allowance money. Most of these were made by Bandai.
Because I wanted to learn how to the attention of children captive like Bandai did for me, and I wanted to let the children become engrossed in something like I did, I became employed at Bandai, the company that dug trenches into my allowance when I was a kid. However, at the same time I wanted to create my own company and compete that way ever since I was a student.
My experience in the world of business was lacking, and the senpai [seniors] at Bandai I discussed this with were skeptical, but I hardened my resolve with a, “If I do this while I’m still young, I can always get back up and try again,” before quitting Bandai and setting up Indies Zero.
A lot of Indies Zero games are very experimental in nature, like Personal Trainer: Cooking and Electroplankton. Do publishers come to you looking for you to develop something that isn’t like "regular" games?
Looking at the results, we do always create “not commonplace” games, but sometimes, when we’re brainstorming a new project, we find the foundation naturally forming as we focus deeply on the philosophy of “creating a fun time unlike any seen before.”
Usually, game development starts off either with us investigating a theme proposed by the client (publisher) or with us thinking up a design to propose to them. And then there are cases where it’s like with Electroplankton, where we helped [media artist] Iwai-san showcase his media art on the Nintendo DS.
At any rate, no matter which case we’re talking about, we at Indies Zero don’t get many requests for creating games like those that already exist; instead, we have many cases where we give the user something fresh and allow them to feel like they have something in their hands that is different from everything that already exists.
In truth, the times we came up with a design that was a traditional action game, the client wasn’t expecting such things from Indies Zero, and sometimes even though they had a good reaction to it, they wouldn’t take us up on it (laughs). Coming up with something completely new in a whole different way, yet which won’t fail isn’t easy… (bitter laughter)
It is true that most of the games Indies Zero designs have a completely different concept from other software, but it’s because we’re good at it, not because that’s all we do. When we brainstorm a new design, we always have every single member of our staff think deeply — Why do we need this game? Why do we want to release this game at this time? — and we hold several discussions with the team.
Simultaneously, every day we search for ideas in life that would set a new norm. If possible, we try to create a game that would reward you not only within the game, but outside in the real world as well. For example, as you play Personal Trainer: Cooking, you also improve your cooking skills. With Electroplankton, as you touch the screen, the sounds and rhythm change; and as the character moves, you are soothed and make new discoveries. You can interact with sounds previously unheard of in existing games and toys.
Every time, we create products with the goal of “setting a new standard” already in mind, so perhaps the clients recognize this as one of Indies Zero’s unique features.
How many people work at Indies Zero?
Currently the staff is 28 people. This is the fourteenth year since our creation, and every year we add 2 to 3 people to the number. That’s how we ended up with such a number.
Could you talk a little about how the internal structure of the company? For example, how many projects are you usually working on simultaneously and who manages them?
For development, we have approximately the same number of employees in the Graphic Designer, Programmer, and Planner teams. Generally, we organize into two teams such that we can advance two projects at the same time, but the number of people and the specific members on each team change based on the specifications of the project, so we do not have a preset team.
For example, currently we are developing Double Pen Sports for the Nintendo 3DS, and for this we have almost all our staff on board at once. At the same time, we are working on two new designs as well, but while we’re developing Double Pen Sports, almost everyone takes part in the different teams and proposes ideas for other teams as well.
Whenever we set up a project, we always pay special attention to organizing the team such that every person can deploy their field of expertise, but also such that they can challenge something new. Also, because the entire staff helps advance the brainstorming process from the get-go, one of our biggest assets is that every person can be heavily involved. As such, everyone can dip into various sub-skills other than the one their expertise, such as designing, brainstorming, or presentation. This helps them think about and decide for themselves what they find the most interesting so they can all grow as game creators.
Indies Zero consists of only a few people, but everyone applies their skills flexibly, and we have a deep level of communication and trust that allows us to coordinate closely together. I believe this is a strength that isn’t possible in a large corporation with many people.
Look forward to Part 2 of our talk with Indies Zero tomorrow, where we discuss the company’s projects, the portable games market, and the Nintendo 3DS.