Interview: Kenichi Iwao, Scenario Writer/Planner/Director for Capcom, Square-Enix, DeNA, and Oriflamme

Sometimes, a personality associated with a famous game is so visible and so spoken-about that we ascribe all elements of a game’s creation to them, rather than recognizing the true team efforts that many of these titles are. Such is the case with the original Resident Evil/Biohazard – you’ll often hear Shinji Mikami given full credit for the title, when in truth, Biohazard wouldn’t have taken the industry by storm if it wasn’t for the entire team who made it a revolutionary horror experience. Kenichi Iwao is one such individual: his scenario and storywriting for Biohazard set the stage for two decades of sequels, offshoots, and lore to follow. It’s not his only claim to fame in the business, either: Iwao has worked on many beloved titles like Demon’s Crest, Einhander, and Parasite Eve II. He also carefully created the sprawling worlds and stories of the Final Fantasy XI and XIV MMOs. It’s an honor to have to opportunity to interview one of these great unsung heroes of the game industry.

We had a unique opportunity to sit down with Iwao and discuss his lengthy career in the video game industry, and he surprised us with some of his answers to our questions. What do Steve Jackson and MSX games have to do with Biohazard? Read on to find out!

Special thanks to Alex Aniel of Brave Wave Music for assisting with this interview.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Iwao-san. I’d like to know a bit about your background.

Certainly. My job description is a “game planner,” of which writing game scenarios is one of the numerous skill subsets. I also do game directing.

Does scenario writing differ from game planning at all?

I don’t really think of them as separate things. Creating a world concept is part of the overall job of game planning.

In the Western game industry, it’s a well-established practice to create things like “bibles” that establish things like overall world settings, character relationships, etc. that various developers involved with the project can pick up and refer to when needed. Does that sort of thing exist within  Japanese game design, as well?

Actually, yes. I was helping to make that sort of thing during my time at Capcom, Square-Enix, and DeNA. I feel like only a small number of people in the Japanese game industry can create that sort of thing, however. I create the world concept and the game design as one package.

Did you always plan to get into the game industry, or was it more of an outcome of circumstance?

My interest in games – and by games, I mean all games, not just the electronic kind – dates back to middle school. I would create games to play with my classmates, and they told me I made things that were quite interesting and fun. I thought that getting into game design would be a logical extension of that process. It goes without saying that after the video game boom began, my attentions turned to that field. It wasn’t a random occurrence.

How did you get in with Capcom, then?

I really liked arcade games, and I associated high-quality arcade titles with Capcom. That’s why I applied there. This was around the time Street Fighter II came out.

Did you live in Osaka at the time?

No, I actually had to move in order to work there, as I was in Tokyo at the time.  Joining Capcom was very competitive – many people applied, but few were hired. Because I felt so honored to be hired by Capcom, I was willing to make the move.

Can you tell us a bit about your work on the 16-bit platforms?

I did do some work on Capcom’s late NES games, but most of my efforts went towards Super Famicom titles. Perhaps my best known SFC titles are Magical Quest 3 starring Mickey and Donald (unreleased in the US) and Demon’s Blazon/Demon’s Crest.

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Oh wow, Demon’s Crest! I love that game.

Oh, you know Demon’s Crest? I’m surprised. Not many people do!

There were a couple of Gameboy and Famicom games featuring Red Arremer/Firebrand before that game. Did you have to go off the preexisting scenario as design from that game, or were you able to do whatever with it?

I was essentially given free reign on the design of that game, so no, we weren’t bound by the pre-existing titles. I have a lot of feelings about that game, but I’m glad that the people who did play it really enjoy it.

(If you want to see a further list of Iwao’s works, he has them on his Facebook page.)

Many of your most well-known works came around during the 32-bit era, which was a time of great change in the game industry. What was the atmosphere in game development like around this time? How does it differ from today’s industry?

I do want to make one point here – as famous as Biohazard is, the project I worked the longest on was Final Fantasy XI. I was writing for that game over the course of eight years.

But getting back to your question – the biggest difference is that game development teams today are much, much larger. Because development teams back in that era were so much smaller, a single person could do many different things on a project. Every so often, that would result in the birth of a new project entirely.

That’s very true – Keiji Inafune quite famously was an artist before he was a designer.

What I find unfortunate for young people in the game industry today is that, because the teams are so large, these folks are really stuck in one specific job. They can’t really see development in its entirety – they’re just seeing that one element rather than being able to try out new roles like they could in that era.

That is quite unfortunate.

What mobile games are doing for the industry right now is giving us the opportunity to work in small teams again. The dev team sizes on these titles are similar to console games from that era.

That’s a very interesting observation! There’s a sentiment in the west that mobile gaming is destroying the Japanese game industry, because they see less and less of those big AAA games being produced from Japan.

It’s a bit complicated. I do think that modern console games have probably become too big and complicated. There’s definitely room for that to be scaled back. In theory, mobile games should provide an outlet for those sorts of not-so-big titles. The problem is that monetization is a factor. Japan’s mobile business may have gone too deeply into that “money first” kind of user experience model. That’s not really a good thing. The most important issue should be where we draw the balance. That’s my personal opinion.

I’ve definitely found myself really enjoying a lot of smartphone games lately, even though I was resistant to them at first.

Actually, a lot of smartphone games remind me of the Famicom era. The experiences are simpler and somewhat repetitive, but they’re fun. Fundamentally, there are still a lot more similarities to console and arcade games than you might think at first.

You’re perhaps best known for your work writing the scenario for the original Biohazard. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be involved in this project?

I joined the project in mid-development. Originally, there were no humans in the game, just cyborgs! It was supposed to be a horror game, still, but by having these Terminator-style characters, it just wasn’t very scary at all. I decided to change up the characters. The initial draft had a mad scientist-like doctor who was doing freakish experiments. I ended up redesigning the characters who would wind up having defining roles in the game, like Chris, Jill, and Wesker, as well as creating the Umbrella Corporation as an enemy, and concepts like the T-virus. I also wrote all of the diary entries and files you find throughout the game.

Oh, so you wrote “Itchy. Tasty.” *laughs*

Yes! I also did a lot of extra research for things like how much ammunition the guns could hold, the different types of shotguns…

So having really limited ammo was your idea, then?

Ah, well, I haven’t talked about this before, but there’s a game called Alcazar: The Forgotten Fortress for the MSX that was an inspiration. There are numerous castles in the game, but the dungeons you end up exploring are random. As a result, the amount of supplies in those dungeons was extremely limited.

The graphics in Alcazar aren’t that great, but I think the enemy AI is particularly good for the time. There are a lot of different ways enemies attack, and you have to strategize, like grouping enemies together to go around them. I originally wanted Biohazard to have more elements similar to this game, like using mines and traps on the zombies, but we couldn’t do that from the schedule constraints. Technologically, I think it would have been possible.

I’m not familiar with this title! That’s very interesting. So did Alcazar have things like enemies that would surprise you, as well?

It did, yes. It had things like tigers and slimes and such, but no zombies.

Did you look at games like Clock Tower and Sweet Home for inspiration as well?

Hmmmm, not really. We hadn’t played Clock Tower when we were developing Biohazard. They’re somewhat similar games, but they didn’t really influence development.

What about other media, like movies, books, and anime? Did you get any inspiration from those?

I was definitely influenced by the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. The British horror concepts really left an impression on me.I kind of wanted to incorporate the feel of those books into Biohazard. There’s one cutscene in the game where Barry is talking to Wesker behind a door, and Jill can overhear him. I got that idea from these gamebooks.

_77075569_booksThere are some rather curious design decisions in the original Biohazard, such as a live-action intro and full English voice acting. Were you involved with any of those?

We didn’t have the time or budget to use CG for the intro, unfortunately. All of the recordings with the live actors were overseen by Mikami. While I wrote the story and how the scenes play out, Mikami acted as director for them. I don’t know about the origins of the actors used for the intro and the voiceover, but I don’t really like the fact that those particular actors were used.

Does anyone like them, except ironically?

A lot of the staff members were disappointed and embarrassed with the final result. Also, in the Japanese version, there’s a Japanese song, “Yume de Owarasenai.” The producer, Fujiwara, was the one who put that in, but the rest of us on the team were really fighting it. It didn’t make sense to have a Japanese song in a game with an American feel to it.

Oh, here’s another amusing anecdote! Remember Plant 42? There’s a picture of a plant that a researcher in the game was supposed to have drawn. That plant was actually drawn by me.

Other staff members have said that Capcom didn’t expect Biohazard to be a hit and didn’t support the project as much as other titles. Did you feel similarly?

Honestly, I didn’t think it would sell, either! When we were making the game, we thought it felt “cheap.” I mean, we thought it was scary, but we weren’t sure if other people would think the same way. And even if they did, would people want to buy a scary game? Was that even a viable genre?

How do you feel about where Capcom has taken the Biohazard story? Have you been surprised at how well characters like Chris, Jill, and Wesker have endured in the hearts of fans?

I am surprised at how popular they continue to be. I’m very happy that it’s 20 years later, and these characters are still enduring. Of course, there are things that I wish I had done differently with them, looking back on it. One of the things I wanted to do with Chris and Jill was make them older – I felt they were too young in the final game. But I see that they’ve aged across the series, so that’s a good thing. I’d also wanted to focus more on the families of the characters, as well.

Out of curiosity — did you plan for Wesker to survive?

Yes, we had plans to use him again down the line, since the T-Virus can revive people from the dead.

The goal  of the Tyrant was to make the ultimate soldier, though a bunch of zombies were also made in the process, so it had an extremely low success rate… kind of like a sniper who targets multiple people. That soldier was meant to put fear into the mind of the players.

When did you leave Capcom to work at Squaresoft?

I left after Biohazard was complete. I actually wanted to study advertising, since I felt Biohazard hadn’t been promoted so well. Squaresoft, however, had a much stronger marketing presence.

Can you tell us a bit about your experiences at Square?

The first published game I worked on was Einhander, but I actually did work on another shooting game before that which was cancelled. The development team was reshuffled a bit and the concepts were reworked, and that’s eventually what lead to Einhander.

Oh, that’s very interesting! Do you recall the name of this game, by any chance?

The game was never announced, but the working title was “Zauber.” Though, maybe it was in a Japanese magazine at some point…

How was it different from Einhander?

Completely different. It wasn’t a very good game… in terms of scale, if Einhander was a planet, this was like a tiny moon orbiting it.

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Parasite Eve II was a project you both scripted and directed. How does directing a full game project differ from drafting a scenario? What was the experience like overall?

Honestly, there isn’t really a job where you only write a scenario for a game. Even with Biohazard, I had to make a game flowchart and make a map with events, which is quite different from just writing. As for directing, though… I didn’t find it too difficult. The biggest challenge with PEII, I felt, was getting the right staff together.

The game feels very different from the original. Were you the person behind the changes?

Well, since Biohazard was such a success at the time, Square want a more Biohazard-like followup, and since I was the person who did the Biohazard scenario, they let me handle it. There were actually some other ex-Biohazard staff working on that game, as well. I put in things like the armor, weapons, ammo, and shop systems. It really did turn out a lot like Biohazard, didn’t it…

You worked on Final Fantasy XI and XIV, both massive MMO worlds with tons of lore. How does creating the world behind a big MMO differ from that of linear single-player titles?

There isn’t that big of a difference, actually. I design my concepts top-down, with the biggest stuff coming first, then the smaller details and where they fit afterwards. It’s applicable to both types of games. I’m very in-depth with my scenarios, thinking of where everything goes in the world and figuring out the history, connections, and backgrounds. In FFXI, there were three timelines, each a thousand years long… and I made sure there was plenty of lore to fill out those thousand years in every case! It actually came out as a book, too… or was it two books?

Since you worked on both versions of FFXIV, do you have any stories to share about the game’s development and subsequent re-development?

There were a lot of factors involved, but the main reason why the game was so poorly received at first was because it was obviously unfinished. A lot went on internally, of course, like the development team getting shuffled around. That was when I started to think about departing from Square-Enix.

And from there, you went to DeNA.

Indeed, I worked at DeNA for the past few years, and I did work on a game there called Blood Brothers, among many other titles.

Ah, yes. That one was tailor-made for a Western audience, right? It seems like your sort of game — it has a lot of boardgame elements.

Yes, I did the design and the overall world concept for that one.

What modern games have you been working on? How does the scope and production of these games differ from your older projects?

Right now, I’m working at the independent developer Oriflamme on a mobile game called Chaos Centurions. It’s a realtime strategy post-apocalyptic simulation.

We’d like to sincerely thank Iwao-san again for taking the time to talk with us!

5 Comments

  1. The dismissal of Sweet Home as an influence contradicts at least one interview that Shinji Mikami gave. Also, it’s weird that he doesn’t mention Alone in the Dark.

    “There’s one cutscene in the game where Barry is talking to Wesker behind a door, and Jill can overhear him. I got that idea from these gamebooks.”

    This is such a stupid example for him to pick. This kind of scene is a cliche that pops up in just about every genre.

    • “This is such a stupid example for him to pick. This kind of scene is a cliche that pops up in just about every genre.”
      It seems to just be a detail that stuck in his mind. Back then while writing, he probably thought “Ah, like in that scene from the book!” and he just remembers that.

      As for the dismissal of certain games as inspiration, different people might have had different thoughts about where they got inspiration from. And he didn’t mention Alone in the Dark because it didn’t come up. Simple as that.

      Your comment comes off as a bit aggressive. The fact that you focused on the RE/Bio part of reminds me of the great and understanding fans that series has.

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