Interview:Mikito Ichikawa

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Mikito Ichikawa (aka Micky G. Albert) is the founder and president of Mindware (formerly MNM Software).

GDRI: What does MNM stand for?

MI: The name MNM stands for our policy: "Minnade Nakayoku Moukeyou" (everyone making money together harmoniously).

Before founding MNM, I had seen people take credit for other people's hard work. Not only that, I had witnessed several deaths from overwork. Managers took advantage of shy and modest programmers. They would pick some programmers as "lead," and these programmers would work so hard, thinking "We were chosen! We must work hard!" They would eventually burn out; sometimes the worst awaited them. I thought this was very wrong, but these things were allowed to happen without anyone even questioning the situation. I decided to start my own company where I wouldn't allow such things to happen.

There was another reason, too: I wanted to make unique games. I strongly believe that originality is the only way to move people in the end, and yet even at that time, the market was full of copycats. I looked for a company which would appreciate original ideas, but could find none, and so I had to set one up for myself.

I remember wondering around that time, "How can a really amazing game rise from the sea of sequels and blatant rip-offs?" It's sad that the situation hasn't gotten any better these days.

GDRI: What was your relationship with Yuzo Koshiro?

MI: During my first year of high school, I was developing games for Dempa Shinbunsha (they were making PC ports of Namco games). My school had a student uniform. One day, Koshiro-san saw me wearing it at Dempa and said hello to me (he was from the same high school - he had already graduated). I hadn't found a composer for Mars yet, so I asked him to do it, and he said OK. Koshiro-san was already really well-known, but I didn't know his reputation because I wasn't so keen on Japanese PC games. I just thought he wrote awesome tunes!

We found out we had much in common. Our taste in games is similar, and the age gap between us is small, just like brothers. We lived in the same neighborhood and became good friends. I often asked him to compose tunes when I thought my project was really ambitious. I really appreciate him as a producer/director. Some people might just handle composing as routine contract work, but Koshiro-san always examines the content of the game deeply and writes tunes that really suit it. Highest quality guaranteed. There would be no worries about sound when Koshiro-san did his work. This indeed lessened my burden when I was starting MNM at the age of 16.

GDRI: Do you still talk to Koshiro-san?

MI: Yes, sometimes.

GDRI: How was MNM able to afford to do a Star Wars game? That seems like an expensive license.

MI: Well, anyone can *try* to do it. We just started developing it without worrying about the license at all.

Getting the Star Wars license seemed like it would be difficult, but just thinking something will be hard isn't any reason to stop, so I tried anyway.

Development of the game was also hard technically. We took advantage of the technology, not to show off what we could do, but to find out what was possible, and I think that was the reason we were able to complete this Star Wars project. And, well, I guess the Force might have helped a little, too.

The license negotiation was tough, but Lucasfilm saw our almost complete game, and they liked it very much. Sharp, the makers of the X68000 platform, sent a system to Lucasfilm as a gift, and this became the decisive factor in the deal.

By the way, now you can see viewpoint change in 3D games everywhere. But in Japan, this game did it first. Some years later, there was a patent dispute concerning "viewpoint change," and the case is what initially led us to Nintendo.[1]

GDRI: Was the PC-98 version of Star Wars by MNM?

MI: No.

GDRI: When you were working on non-MNM developed games like Batman Returns for Game Gear, were you working on behalf of MNM?

MI: In preparing the music driver, I did conversion of the music data. I wasn't at all involved with the game itself.

GDRI: Were you responsible for the sound driver on the Master System/Game Gear version of Sonic the Hedgehog (Koshiro-san worked on that)?

MI: That was not my work.

GDRI: We're surprised you named A Ressha de Ikou MD [aka Take the A-Train]. Was MNM soley responsible for developing that?

MI: The original A Ressha de Ikou was developed by an incredibly creative company called Artdink. MNM Software only developed the MD version. We outsourced the music, but other than that, everything was done within MNM Software.

The original A Ressha de Ikou was a very special title for me. The game was released in the mid-80s. Most games had settled on being in a certain genre, and really unique, never-before-seen kinds of games had become very rare. Then I came across A Ressha de Ikou, and I was impressed. It had unique gameplay, a simple interface, and such depth that one could keep playing forever. I watched what Artdink would do next. Their next title, The Earth Self Defense Force [Chikyuu Boueigun], was also unique. This game was written in dated BASIC and machine language, so I thought Artdink wasn't so skilled technically. However, I was later proven wrong; their fourth game, Arctic, was from a technical standpoint probably one of the best in Japan.

Artdink intrigued me. They made each game unique and special. After playing Arctic, I made up my mind. I really wanted to meet the Artdink guys and see what sort of people they were, so I visited them. They were very nice, and I talked with their director, Mr. Kawanishi. He was very polite, even to a young high school student like me. He asked me what significance programming had for me. After talking to him for half an hour, it became clear that they did have great technology, but also valued productivity. I was shocked to learn they had purposely chosen older technology for the development of The Earth Self Defense Force. He also advised me that I should found my own company. This was part of the reason why I started MNM Software.

GDRI: Was Slap Fight MD done under contract with Toaplan?

MI: Slap Fight was not as mainstream as other Toaplan titles like Flying Shark, but we wanted to do a Mega Drive version of the game, so we proposed the idea to Toaplan ourselves. Similarly to A Ressha de Ikou, we were motivated to work on the project because it was something that we really wanted to do.

So this was a contract project, yes, but it was different from the usual "they wanted a port and hired someone" sort of contract.

GDRI: MNM seemed to develop a lot of games in the early 1990s. How long did it usually take to complete a game? How many people were working at the company?

MI: I think MNM had around 20 people or so at that time. The development period varied depending on the title. Our longest project lasted four years, but short ones were about three months long.

I believe it's good to take time, so the game can mature over time. However, long development periods can stress management, and developers can get bored if they work on the same title for a long time, so I usually make the core members look after several titles at once. This way, the management risk lessens, and developers can keep a fresh perspective on multiple titles.

GDRI: Can I assume you own the rights to most of the original, self-published MNM games? How do you feel about people downloading these old games and playing them in emulators? Do you plan on revisiting these old properties in the future?

MI: Mindware owns the rights to most of the titles. Of course, we don't have the rights to titles like Streets of Rage II or Take the A-Train.

Speaking of downloading these old games and playing them in emulators, we should talk about the ROM image issue. I began to see arcade game emulators around 1992-1993. I felt that the people involved at that time knew coding and actually understood that it's not right to have ROM images. However, around 1995-1996, some people started to justify this illegal act by saying, "We have the right to download and play these ROM images because the developers don't release proper ports for us to play!" I had a discussion with these kinds of guys in 1997. I objected to their view, and they started to flame me. I asked them, "You think it's your right to download the ROM images, but have you ever given even one yen to the makers in compensation?"

These days, even small kids use the Internet, and video gaming has become a big part of their lives, but I do have some concerns. If they take downloading ROM images for granted in their early years, will they ever consider rights and compensation? This isn't just about gaming; you should respect other people's works and pay fair prices for them. I don't think it's wrong just because someone could punish us for it. I think it's wrong because the hard work that goes into it deserves compensation. We have to ensure people can get proper rewards from their hard work, or people will give up putting effort into their work. This would be bad for everyone.

My other concern is that there have been fewer and fewer "games" in video games these days. I believe "games" should have dynamic challenges/risk and reward structures in their fundamental level, and I believe that a game's distinctive quality in gameplay is what entertains people. I see lots of recycled skeletons dressed up with seemingly different graphics and sounds. They try to pull the player in with only the outward appearance. I feel a sense of crisis here. I wish to see more new video games that play totally different and are fun.

Right now, Mindware is too busy with developing new titles, so we aren't currently planning on revisiting our old properties.

We need to finish our pinball tables. We also have too many new ideas for video games, so we'll have to discard some. I think if someone runs out of new ideas, that person should retire from game design. Creating a game is not a trivial job. It can affect someone's precious childhood, and so we ought to be responsible for it.

If we come up with some ideas that would work best as sequels or remakes, we might do them, but not now.

GDRI: Were there any games MNM did that were never finished or released? Do you have old disks or prototypes sitting somewhere?

MI: We have numerous unfinished/unreleased games. If during a game's development I realize that it isn't going to become a truly enjoyable game, I stop the game's development. We don't want to release a game like that; there are too many of those already, so there are many titles we haven't released.

I don't keep our old disks or prototypes. Most of them were lost when I was seriously ill.

However, it doesn't matter if I still have the old disks or not. In my mind, I keep almost every idea from my past. This surprises my old friends at times. I still remember game ideas from my high school days and in fact, you can see some of them in MaBoShi. Of course, it's possible I might have forgotten some, but then the ones I forgot must have been less great than the others, so I don't care.

I have lots of ideas, but I never have enough time to implement all of them since I was a junior-high student. I try to code fast to make more games; I really do enjoy coding. When I find more time, then I start planning new games. In the end, I sometimes work too much, and it makes me ill. Does anyone know a cure?

GDRI: Why was the name changed from MNM to Mindware?

MI: In the summer of 1992, the doctor told me that I had collagen disease. He also said I had only one and half years left. In May 1993, I became bed-bound, so I had to close the MNM office.

At one time, I only weighed 36 kg. Fortunately, I was able to pull myself together in the spring of 1995. As I recovered, I thought about bringing MNM back. I discussed many things with a long-time friend of mine. He had been programming with me since junior high, and he was also the director of the company. We talked about things like, "Why do people work?", "Why do people play games?", "What makes people happy?" These questions cleared my mind. We developers are not tools. We have minds, and we put our minds into our games. I hoped our games would touch and interact with players' minds, so I changed my company's name to Mindware.

I was also thinking that many games were failing to touch and move players. I remember seeing this random game magazine review around that time. It said, of this particular game, "well polished, but it doesn't excite me somehow" (this review was almost an *incident* - this kind of magazine was paid by the publisher, yet reviewers were so bored of similar titles that they made a negative remark!). I realized I didn't want to make games that were polished, but not exciting. I think this also pushed me towards the name Mindware.

GDRI: How many employees does Mindware have? What is the work environment like? Do you have development kits?

MI: I think this industry is full of ups and downs; it's not the sort of industry where you can say "this is the right way". So I don't think it's good to force my company to grow. As a result, Mindware does not have many employees. We sometimes welcome a new person when we feel we can share our vision with them. We are slow in terms of employee turnover.

We released a game through Nintendo, so we use development kits supplied by Nintendo.

GDRI: Why the name "Micky G. Albert?"

MI: Micky is derived from my real name Mikito. One of the reasons why my parents named me Mikito was because non-Japanese would be able to pronounce the name easily with only a small modification.

Albert came from a character in one of our past works. In an RPG called Gage, there was a guy named Mick Albert. He would talk to the player often. I took the family name Albert from him.

G. stands for "gosokkyu" ("豪速球"). "Gosokkyu" is a Japanese baseball term which means a fierce and spirited fastball. What matters with a "gosokkyu" is not measured speed. A kid might throw a "gosokkyu," and the speed of the ball might be under 65mph, but the ball is powered by the kid's willpower. The batter would perceive it as powerful and fast. Yet a major leaguer might throw a 95mph fastball, but not a "gosokkyu" if he throws it with evasive feelings, and the runner would sense his weak heart and hit the ball cleanly.

I think this can be true in games. In recent years, we've seen more and more games that are polished, but soulless. I want to make high-spirited games that would make people excited, so I chose the word "gosokkyu" as my middle name.

GDRI: What is Mindware doing today?

MI: We are making video games and leasing/developing pinball machines.

I once stopped making video games in the late 90s. More games started to have FMVs, but games with qualitative change became really rare, so I decided to step back for a while. I continued prototyping many experimental games behind the scenes, hoping that a new era where people appreciated new ideas would come.

Our new game will be announced and released soon. It's a game full of never-before-seen ideas. We believe this game can turn the current tide of similar/rip-off games. We received several offers around the PS2 launch, but we turned them all down. Now we have a powerful publisher that can fuel us to go full throttle!

As for pinball, in addition to pinball machine leasing/maintenance, we host the Flip-Out Tournament annually. We also do pinball lectures for beginners.

We've been developing pinball machines since 2000. Our first prototype machine with our own hardware was completed in summer 2003, but it will take some more time before you will see one in arcades.

In the future, we hope to release the specifications and SDK for our pinball machines so that hobbyists can develop their own. In the world of video games, there are development environments that everyone can use, and they can have their games played. There are contests that they can enter. This system nurtures future developers, thus supporting the whole industry. The world of pinball has none of these things. Pinball designers are getting older and older, and there are no young ones. What will happen in 20 years? The world will have no pinball designers if we do nothing, so we'd like to do things to foster future pinball designers, contributing to the future of pinball in our own way.

English translation written by Rumiko Hoshino and edited by Dimitri and CRV.

Interview conducted via e-mail by CRV in .

Footnotes
1. "Viewpoint change" refers to being able to switch between various pre-set camera angles. According to the original translator Hoshino-san, Sega patented "viewpoint change" in Japan in 1998, citing Virtua Racing as an example. [1] Then Sega tried getting licensing fees from other developers such as Atari Games. [2]

To counter the patent, Konami, Nintendo, Technosoft, and T&E Soft filed patent opposition together, citing MNM's Star Wars as a prior example. Ichikawa-san also testified in court that he had shown the Star Wars game to Sega, so the court decided to revoke Sega's patent.