After The Evil Within and GhostWire: Tokyo, here's how Ikumi Nakamura is breaking boundaries in a games studio "driven by passionate artists"

Ikumi Nakamura's Kemuri
(Image credit: Unseen Inc)

Located in an old warehouse in Tsukishima, a working-class neighborhood of Tokyo, Unseen Inc makes for quite the contrast to the corporate offices where Ikumi Nakamura started her career. She joined Capcom in 2004 as an environment artist, before following two of the publisher's brightest creative minds to their own video game studios: first Hideki Kamiya’s PlatinumGames, then Shinji Mikami's Tango Gameworks. It was at the latter company that she first caught the public’s attention, after taking to Bethesda's E3 conference stage in 2019 to announce Ghostwire: Tokyo. However, she left the project and Tango later that year, due in part to health problems. 

Taking the opportunity to form her own game company, Nakamura's aim – as she first told us in Edge issue 371 – was to create a 'borderless' studio. In part, that refers to Unseen's hybrid mode of working. "Before [the pandemic], I had already been thinking for several years about the possibility of making video games remotely as a studio," Nakamura tells us, "where team members didn’t have to come to Japan." Accordingly, it also means a multicultural studio, with 90 per cent of its employees coming from overseas, leveraging AI "to help translate and streamline communication" between Japanese and English speakers. 

While we can’t help but notice the bonsai tree and traditional paper lantern decorating its entrance, Unseen is not what Nakamura would call a Japanese company – certainly not in terms of the strict corporate hierarchy for which they are typically renowned. Indeed, to illustrate this, she casually calls two overseas staff members over to our meeting for their input. "[Unseen] is obviously not very corporate at all – we just try to be mutually respectful while also trying to make a good game," one team member says. Their colleague, having worked at a major Japanese publisher previously, is more to the point: "We’re treated like adults here." 

That difference becomes clear as we sit down with Nakamura on floor cushions, in a central meeting room that feels more like a festival tent, or perhaps an artists' studio in the mode of Warhol's Factory. Indeed, Nakamura refers to the studio's developers, regardless of discipline, as artists. "A lot of companies are publisher-driven but I don’t like that," she says. "This place is driven by passionate artists."

An artist's touch

The Evil Within

(Image credit: Bethesda)

The latest cover of Edge, which features Star Wars: Outlaws

(Image credit: Future PLC)

This feature originally appeared in Edge Magazine. For more fantastic in-depth interviews, features, reviews, and more delivered straight to your door or device, subscribe to Edge

Has running a videogame studio always been an ambition of yours? 

Since I was in middle school, I wanted to be a game developer. That's what I had in my mind to pursue, and it hasn’t changed since. But when you're actually hired, you don’t even know what you're going to be doing – you're just hired by a game company, and they tell you what you need to do. So I was told to become an environment artist, and that's how I started. During that time, I always wanted to be a concept artist. 2D art was something I was most interested in, so I was a full-on artist back then. 

I had never dreamed of running my own studio as a CEO. But it was while I was actually a creative director back in 2019 that the idea and opportunity of creating a new studio [emerged]. It was from meeting people after E3 and visiting other game studios, where people were telling me, "Ikumi, if you gather and put together a team and create a great environment, it's going to be a great game company that makes a really great game". So that’s what I decided to do. Creating and running a game company was what I became focused on. 

Having started out as an artist, how did the opportunity emerge to transition to the position of creative director at Tango Gameworks? 

In my previous workplace, I faced challenging interpersonal dynamics where there was a culture of hierarchy and rigidity. It often felt like standing out would lead to being pushed down, even if you excelled. During that time, I had the opportunity to contribute to a spinoff project from The Evil Within, featuring a new story with Joseph Oda as the protagonist. I was responsible for art direction in a relatively small team. However, our director had to take leave due to some health matters, and the team navigated without direction for about a month. When he returned, he candidly shared his lack of confidence in resuming the director role, due to his health. That's when I saw an opportunity and stepped up, offering to take on the role myself.

I saw it as a chance to create a project with a forward-looking perspective. I didn't hesitate to volunteer because I believed I could craft a game for the next generation. From there, I began conceptualizing not another installment of The Evil Within but the inception of Ghostwire: Tokyo. Crafting pitch decks and presenting to Bethesda was an incredibly exciting journey. It was where I learned the art of securing budgets and resources. I seized opportunities, displayed leadership, and took initiative when the situation demanded it. What I did was perhaps unconventional and it led to some complications that put a constraint on my creative freedom. That's when I began to realise that I was not in the right environment to achieve personal growth.

Ghostwire: Tokyo

(Image credit: Bethesda)

Given how different Unseen is from the studios you’ve worked at previously in your career, where did you look for inspiration?

After I left Tango Gameworks, I went to many game studios all over the world, including in Montreal, the States, and England. I experienced the kind of environment in which other big studios make games. It made me question why in Japan we have to be stuck in this concrete box with bright white fluorescent lights – to me, that's not creative at all! When you think of other creative artists, they have a tendency to retreat to the mountains or the middle of nowhere to make their art. It's kind of similar for game making where, as a creator, to be creative, the place needs to be inspiring and fun. So that's why I built this studio from the ground up, to suit that need. I have taken inspiration from many cool studios, including Riot and Sony Santa Monica, but that being said, I have a very clear idea about what kind of environment I want to make games in. At the same time as I was making this particular space, I had a couple of the game creators already with me, so we talked about things we would like to include. It was designed as our vision together. There were a lot of things moving at once: building a new IP, building a new company, and building this space. So there were all kinds of influences in how this place looks. This place is, as we speak, still evolving. Things are constantly changing, but it starts from here.

On the topic of growing, Unseen's current headcount is smaller than the teams you've previously worked with – how does that affect the scope of the games you plan to make? 

I think this is the part of this company that has grown the most, and the part that has been a challenge. In terms of scale, it is quite small' but [it's] a small group of elite artists. We're actually attracting more generalist developers instead of specialists, so there is more flexibility there. Based on that, we are actually building a team where 50 people can perform like 100. We don't really envision our company growing much larger than what we currently are. 

Instead, we want to have a very focused team. We'll outsource, too, but even outsourcing is very selective. I'm quite picky about who I work with – not just in the studio we use, but the individual person or freelancer. I don't like the term 'outsourcing', actually. I want us as a unit and a team, so when I have worked with outsourcing artists, they are treated like actual members of the team. I guess that's just a characteristic of my development style! Presumably generalists tend to have more experience and also opportunities for branching out, just as you have, so does that mean you're reticent to hire more junior developers? To be honest, it's quite difficult to find generalist talent, but we do find them. As far as hiring junior talents go, I've seen younger developers who can also be generalists too. But for us to actually be able to hire a junior, we as senior artists or managers have to make sure we're growing properly too. That's really important, because you want your lead to be awesome, right? In some companies, juniors are brought in but it doesn’t lead to growth at all. Especially in Japan, anything that sticks out gets hammered down, which I really hate. So we are still in the process of being ready, as a mature team, so that we can actually welcome junior talent and then actually provide them with a good environment to grow. 

My experience as an artist, then becoming a creative director, did actually have an influence on learning to be more of a generalist. [A specialist] doesn't go across to a different department as much, and that’s fine too – that's one way to actually make a game. But in my team I want the artist to go beyond their boundaries and into different departments, which allows for more collaboration. That's why a more generalist artist is a better fit for this team. I'm learning new things every day from team members – that's something I actually look forward to every day.

New beginnings


(Image credit: Unseen Inc)

Were there any lessons you took from working with Kamiya and Mikami that have fed into how you’re running your own studio? 

Both Mikami and Kamiya have been more game directors than CEOs, strictly speaking, so it's a different kind of job category here. The things I'm doing at Unseen are quite opposite from what they were doing at the companies I was working at before. That said, I do get told I have a very similar personality to Kamiya. We're both quite childish and mischievous in our own ways. We're just a bit wild and do what we want to do – but I won't be putting down other gamers on Twitter! 

Kamiya-san actually told me, "Be wild!" Basically, get noticed. Whether you're a director or concept artist, make sure you're being wild, active and energetic. So that's something he taught me that I guess I'm doing. While those former bosses are generally thought of as auteurs, you've named this studio Unseen, which implies a degree of anonymity. 

How do you feel about being a studio figurehead? 

I am creating a studio environment where women actually feel comfortable and considered, especially in the Japanese games industry where women are still a small minority.

Ikumi Nakamura

I definitely want the game [Kemuri] to be Unseen's game, not Ikumi Nakamura's game – it's not I but us, the team, who made this game. I don't like having my name attached to the game and that's why my name is not in the company's name. 

We've actually been doing spotlights of our developers working on the game on the company's website, where each person has been interviewed one by one to talk about their role. So I'm intending that the whole team has visibility, and the focus is on everyone, not just me. 

On the note of proper credit, there was some discussion at the time of Ghostwire: Tokyo's release about you receiving a 'special thanks' when most people were aware that you were the game's original creative director. How did you feel about that? 

I did leave the team in the middle, so I think the spotlight should go to people who actually finished the game and really committed to it. However, if there is a game that people have been involved in making, then ideally all those members should be actually credited with the proper title of what they’ve actually done as a sign of respect, as the bare minimum. So that's how I feel about that. But it's still very common for many publishers that, if you leave, your name is not credited [at all], so a 'special thanks' is still a special thanks! 

You’re one of very few female studio heads in Japan, certainly at this kind of scale and visibility. Does that bring extra pressure? And do you feel more conscious responsibility for helping other women or minority groups to thrive in the industry? 

Being female certainly does have some influence on how you run a company. There's things that you only understand fully because you're female – for instance, being a mother and managing your physical and mental health. So I want to make sure that, as a female CEO, I am creating a studio environment where women actually feel comfortable and considered, especially in the Japanese games industry where women are still a small minority. That being said, there's plenty of talented people here, so I'm trying to attract talented artists regardless of whether they're male or female. 

Working in this industry around the clock as a woman, sometimes you get your period and you find out you need a product. I've always thought that a company should take care of that inconvenience, but you just don't have that – I'd always have to run out to a convenience store to pick some up. I've always experienced this type of thing, so I want to make sure that this studio is comfortable for women to work in. In some companies out there, you can't actually bring your child to the office. I really can't comprehend that, so at Unseen we're very open if you bring your child here. Whether you're a mother or father, if you need to take care of your baby, we provide a space for them while they work. You might have also noticed the floor of this studio is also all slopes. We have no steps, and it's been designed so that if someone has a wheelchair then they can come to work here as well. We haven't actually hired anyone who uses a wheelchair yet, but we are ready for them in the future. We are ready for everybody!


(Image credit: Unseen Inc.)

Having left projects before completion – or, in the case of Scalebound, working on a project that was cancelled – do you feel there's anything you learned from those times in particular, or is it more about regrets from which you just have to move forward? 

The grisly greats

The Evil Within 2

(Image credit: Tango Gameworks)

Nakamura worked on The Evil Within games, two of the best horror games ever.

Scalebound actually got cancelled a few years after I had left the team. So during my career I haven't experienced a game getting cancelled while I was working on it. Even so, it's still not a good feeling to have invested in a project that gets cancelled by the publisher. It is also a learning experience, because it's a game that the publisher decided is not going to be the right product to release. I definitely think there's a reason that decisions like that are made.

As for Ghostwire: Tokyo, it's something that I did actually have to leave in the middle. It felt like giving birth to a child and then entrusting another person to actually raise the child, which is a hard situation. My true feeling was that I also wanted to raise the child as well, but there were certain situations that didn't allow me to do that. Though this child was just four years old, their personality and individuality were already taking shape. So, even without a parent like me around, I could entrust them to the team and consider the outcome as the adult they'll become. I've come to understand that by delegating my responsibilities and moving on to the next step, I mitigated the risk of my passion as an artist stagnating. It was time to embrace change and keep moving forward. 

In the spirit of moving forward, Unseen's debut, Kemuri, is another supernatural action game, yet it also appears to have a different kind of energy and atmosphere from what you've done in this genre before. Is that a fair observation? 

The concept for a project like this has been brewing in my mind since my middle-school days. Scratch that, even earlier. To be honest, it’s like the culmination of dreams from my otaku era, an initiative that breathes life into those long-held aspirations. While my fascination with the mysterious and supernatural may have influenced my work, Kemuri presents a unique opportunity in my career, diverging from my past endeavours. 

We are actually building a team where 50 people can perform like 100.

Ikumi Nakamura

Okami remains one of the most memorable experiences in my career, and I had always set out to challenge stylized depictions. My intention is to craft a game within my expertise [that's] mysterious and otherworldly. Somehow, we have forgotten old tales, lost our beliefs, and misplaced the sense of mystery. Imagine a blend of absurdity, grandiosity and cheerful comedy colliding with seriousness, all wrapped up in a package of both positivity and negativity. Within this chaotic mix, there's always room for jokes and heartfelt moments that push the boundaries of the unexpected. Nevertheless, in this world, they persist as an unending presence among us. 

Obviously it's still early days for the studio, but what do you envision for Kemuri and also Unseen as a whole over the next few years? 

The brilliance of the unknown intensifies as it gradually unveils itself. The inherent nature of the unknown, shrouded in mystery, captivates human curiosity, giving rise to novel mysteries in turn. It is an infinite process, and attempting to quantify its extent is a formidable undertaking.

This feature originally appeared in Edge magazine. For more fantastic features, you can subscribe to Edge right here or pick up a single issue today

Alan Wen

I'm a freelance games journalist who covers a bit of everything from reviews to features, and also writes gaming news for NME. I'm a regular contributor in print magazines, including Edge, Play, and Retro Gamer. Japanese games are one of my biggest passions and I'll always somehow find time to fit in a 60+ hour JRPG. While I cover games from all platforms, I'm very much a Switch lover, though also at heart a Sega shill. Favourite games include Bloodborne, Persona 5, Resident Evil 4, Ico, and Breath of the Wild.