Last week, iconic Castlevania designer Koji Igarashi announced that he was leaving Konami. After more than two decades with the company, most of them spent on the same franchise, he decided to venture out on his own. Last year, Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune did the same, leaving developer Capcom to start an indie studio called Comcept, while Populous creator Peter Molyneux made a similar decision one year earlier. All are considered rock star designers. And all three have left the relative comfort of a major game developer to do something they otherwise couldn't — make the kinds of games they really want.
"This has been a want, and almost a need, of mine to do that," Molyneux says of working on his new game. "And that's why I left my fantastic job at Microsoft, which was so comfortable and lovely and secure."
They seem particularly eager to work on the kinds of games that made them so well known in the first place. Inafune successfully crowdfunded a very Mega Man-like game called Mighty No. 9, while Molyneux did the same with Godus. "Our ambition is to create a game which reinvents a genre that I stumbled on when I first started out in this industry," he says of the game. Igarashi hasn't said exactly what he'll be working on now, but it sounds like he won't be straying too far. "I've decided to break out on my own to have the freedom to make the kind of games I really want to make," he said when announcing his departure, "the same kind I think fans of my past games want as well."
The indie games scene may seem like a relatively new phenomenon to many, but independent studios have been around for decades. Populous, for example, was developed by Molyneux and a small team at Bullfrog Productions, which has since become a part of EA. "We were all indies back then," he says.
Inafune, meanwhile, likens the development of the original Mega Man to working at a modern indie studio — it was created by a team of just six people, three of whom were brand new to the company, in a tiny office building separate from Capcom's main headquarters. They weren't even supposed to be making the game; their actual job was porting Capcom's arcade titles to consoles. During a talk at GDC 2014, Inafune said that working at Comcept feels like a return to those "good old days" of developing Mega Man. "My heart and soul is a lot healthier," he says of the change.
"My heart and soul is a lot healthier."
Inafune says that his decision to leave Capcom was specifically inspired by the burgeoning indie scene in North America. "Seeing the indie movement out here has helped me," he says. By forming their own studios, these designers are able to build the kinds of games they want, even if they've fallen out of fashion — god games, for instance, has been relegated to a small niche for years. But Molyneux is hoping that relatively new tech like touchscreens and cloud computing can help him infuse the genre with new life.
"I don't want to just recreate Populous," he says, "It's like doing the remake of Total Recall — it was rubbish. I don't want to make a remake like that, I want to reinvent. And reinvention is completely different." With Populous, which was released in 1989, Molyneux has been credited with creating the god-game genre, a type of strategy game where you're able to control entire worlds. It's the game that started his long and successful career, and it's an experience he hasn't stopped thinking about. "When you make that game," he says, "the ideas don't stop."
One of Molyneux's biggest inspirations is, of all things, British soap opera Coronation Street — he wants to build a game that's primarily about players interacting with one another and, potentially, a game that's around for years and maybe decades, just like the show. "The fact that that series has changed and evolved and stayed relevant, means that Coronation Street is as successful now as it's ever been," he says. "Why can't a computer game be the same?"
"The ideas don't stop."
Godus was first announced in 2012, but Molyneux had been hinting at its existence even earlier. During a talk at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, he showed off an updated version of Populous that he had been working on in his spare time, which let 256 people play the game simultaneously. "I was really saying, 'This is what I'm about to do,'" he recalls
All three designers are so closely associated with a certain kind of game, and it seems as though perfecting that formula is the ultimate goal — even if it means leaving the comfort of a high-profile job to do so. "It's weird to me because I feel I owe the genre so much," says Molyneux.
"I don't feel like I created the genre. I think this genre created me."