Akira Yasuda – 2003 Developer Interview
originally featured in the “style of games” book
—This year you quit Capcom and went completely independent.
Yasuda: I quit Capcom and went freelance on June 28th, so I think it’s been about 5 months now?
—It sounds like you’ve been doing a lot—in fact, right after quitting you went and drew that Kunoichi poster for Sega. What are some of the differences in working freelance, compared with being a full-time employee?
Yasuda: Ultimately, I’m a lot more happy working freelance. I did have some anxiety about it before I quit though. I was worried about money, whether my colleagues would think I betrayed them, whether any work would come my way… As it turns out, now that I’m actually working this way, most of those fears were unfounded. Well, I haven’t really solved the whole money thing yet.
—And you’ve still continued to do a lot of work for Capcom, too.
Yasuda: When I was employed at Capcom, I was a very expensive designer for them to use. My salary was high, so Capcom couldn’t afford to use me on any non-game projects. For example, Tokyo Capcom’s character rights department wanted to use me for some illustrations, but my costs were too high so I couldn’t do it. But now that I’m freelance I can offer much more affordable rates, so I’ve been getting a lot of work from Capcom.
Akira “Akiman” Yasuda (2003)
—That’s amazing… you’re doing MORE work for Capcom now as an independent than when you were their own full-time employee! Which surprises me, because I had heard that you were Capcom’s busiest designer, and that no one’s pulled as many overnighters as you.
Yasuda: Yeah, I don’t think anyone can beat my record for “percentage of time lived at Capcom.” During game developments, I always slept under my desk. I had a whole futon laid out and everything! When things were really busy, Yoshiki Okamoto (former Capcom development leader) would be setting new deadlines every 10 hours, so I couldn’t leave my computer… that’s how I acquired the habit of sleeping under my desk. By the way, even now that I’m freelance, I still sleep under my computer desk at home.
—Hmm, yeah, I guess it just surprises me that someone so acclimated to life at Capcom would then quit and go freelance. But let’s put that aside for now. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I’d like to cover your whole career today, from the time you joined Capcom, all the way up to your decision to go freelance. To start things off, did you want to be a designer since you were a kid?
Yasuda: Ever since I was a child, I’ve always taken great pride in what I drew. In my second or third year of grade school, my homeroom teacher Mr. Kimura praised my drawings, which gave me a huge boost of confidence. I can still remember it today—we were doing a drawing exercise in class, drawing water insects. I was drawing a gengoro (a diving beetle) with my pencil, adding gradations and highlights. Mr. Kimura saw it and exclaimed, “Amazing! Hey, everyone, look at this!” All the students gathered around me and went “woooow”, and I became something of a popular kid after that. Since that day, I became completely focused on art and art alone—it felt like my own personal treasure, and I kept working to refine and improve it.
—When did you practice drawing?
Yasuda: When I got home from school, I would go straight to my room and draw for the rest of the day. If my friends invited me out to baseball or something, I’d say “sure”, but then I’d flake out to stay home and draw. The key to getting better as an artist is to break all your promises. (laughs)
I didn’t do any clubs in middle school, so I could focus unhindered on drawing and my other passion at the time, which was radio. I spent many afternoons listening to the BCL (shortwave) radio and poring over my “Make Your Own Radio Book”, trying to build my own. Maybe my parents felt guilty because they worked in the night entertainment industry and were busy a lot, but they always bought me whatever I needed to help me pursue my interests. After I saw a tv program showcasing illustrator Shusei Nagaoka’s art, they bought me an airbrush and several fine-point brushes. Likewise, when I saw Hajime Sorayama’s illustrations, they went and bought me liquitex acrylics.
—Did you major in the arts in high school?
Yasuda: The local high school I attended in Kushiro had a really strong art club, which I joined. One of the older students had won the Ministry of Education Award and the Prime Minister Award, and the walls of the art club room were adorned with many of his humongous canvases. It was nothing but dark oil paintings: abandoned fishing boats, desolate and lonely shopping areas… they were powerful enough, but all that gloomy imagery did absolutely nothing for me personally, and I didn’t get on with the club. As a result, I never learned oil painting, but instead focused on graphic design. In fact, in my first year I won the design award for the Hokkaido contest, and the following year I won the design, illustration, and photography awards. That boosted my pride. If I could be the best in Hokkaido, I thought, maybe I could be the best anywhere in the world.
—With such artistic skill, weren’t you very popular in school?
Yasuda: Well, I got the sense people thought I was cool maybe, but… the truth is, I was pretty slovenly, often not showering for days, so I wasn’t one of the popular kids among my immediate classmates. I did receive a lot of presents and attention from younger students though. They gave me a Gundam cushion once, stuff like that.
—Are you “coming out” as a lifelong Gundam fan today?
Yasuda: Yup. I even once wrote an essay for class titled “Why Gundam is Cool”. I had a lot of the model kits too.
—I understand you headed straight to Tokyo after graduating high school.
Yasuda: Me, the head of the art club, and another friend from art club all decided we would go to Tokyo to try and make it as artists. A friend of mine was paying his way through design school by delivering newspapers, so I copied him and did the same.
—So you’d start each morning with paper delivery, then have the rest of the day to work on your art.
Yasuda: It was actually a very difficult time for me. I was not suited for the paper delivery work. I was always late, I was bad at collecting the payments, and I didn’t follow-up on re-subscriptions with customers. My boss hated me. On top of that, I quit design school after a year, and then I spent a whole year where all I did was focus on the paper delivery job.
—It sounds like you completely lost sight of your goals. A wasted year.
Yasuda: Yeah, I just loafed around all day. Around that time one of my senpais at the newspaper delivery job bought himself a new computer. It was a PC-6001, the “Papikon” as it’s called. I thought it looked interesting, so he let me use it and I tried writing a program for it. I wrote a very simple program that would draw lines if you entered coordinates. I thought to myself, “Hey, with this, I could draw on the computer…”
I tried drawing a picture of Lum from Urusei Yastura. However, as soon as I drew her outline, I got a memory overrun error. I investigated and discovered I had run out of “video ram.” I didn’t know what “video ram” meant, but I gathered that this computer wasn’t very powerful. After that experience I wanted a computer of my own, so I rushed out and bought the highest-spec model on the market then, a Toshiba Pasopia 7. I had so much fun with that computer. It could handle detailed line coordinates, and I used it to draw anime characters on-screen. To get a good skin-tone, I would alternate orange and white lines. I saved my drawings on a cassette tape recorder storage.
—So this was your first taste of the joy of computer graphics.
Yasuda: I really had no idea drawing on the computer would be this much fun. I then started reading Maikon Basic Magazine and learned to program. It was there that I saw the pixel art for Xevious, and learned about the beauty of pixel art. 1
—Was that when you decided to try joining Capcom?
Yasuda: No, after the newspaper delivery job, I kept working on a couple part-time jobs for awhile: as an animator, and organizing freight in a warehouse. But I had no money and the work was sporadic, so for a long time I lived at my girlfriend’s place. Occasionally I saw job ads Capcom put out, looking for people to design posters or make commercials. I actually thought they were an advertising company when I first applied to them.
Toshiba’s Pasopia 7 computer; aside from a relatively high color palette, it boasted the somewhat unusual feature of allowing the owner to customize the look of their computer by replacing the detachable keyboard cover plate.
—What was their hiring test like?
Yasuda: I was interviewed by Yoshiki Okamoto. He had that popular Checkers haircut with the uneven bangs, and a nice deep tan. He was like your cooler older brother or something. Anyway, after a very short interview he asked me if I could start the day after tomorrow.
—There’s a legend I’ve heard about you, that you came to the Capcom interview wearing your pajamas…
Yasuda: Yeah, that could be true, but I don’t remember! It is true though that I used to wear pajamas to the office, so I bet I did wear them to the interview too. My girlfriend’s pajamas had a collar that I thought looked more professional than my t-shirts.
—Did Capcom have a game development team in Tokyo at the time, too?
Yasuda: They did. And I worked at the Tokyo office. I had no money for the commute from my girlfriend’s place to the office, though, so I asked Okamoto for commute expenses and Capcom paid them. That was how I started working there.
—What was your first job?
Yasuda: When I was hired, there were two development lines. The main group was working on Gunsmoke, and the sub group worked on Side Arms. I got assigned to draw the backgrounds for Side Arms. Okamoto started by showing me an example background he had drawn himself, and was like “You get the idea right? Now draw the rest of them!” Within a week of being hired I had been entrusted with all the backgrounds… it was a lot of faith to put in a newbie!
Okamoto was a pro when it came to delegating work. It wasn’t the kind of workplace where you could be helpless and ask how things were done; you had to figure it out yourself.
—It would appear then that your foundation in computer graphics work came from two sources: the drawings you made on your computer of Lum-chan, and Okamoto’s tutelage.
Yasuda: Hmm, well, the computer I did the Lum-chan drawings on had a high resolution, so I drew with lines on that. But pixel art is a low-resolution style that doesn’t use lines. So if I had to say, I think I mainly studied on my own by watching my senior colleagues at Capcom draw pixel art. One characteristic of pixel art is that brighter pixels appear closer, and darker pixels appear further away. One of my techniques was to use darker pixels on the characters’ edges/margins, and to give them a greater sense of depth, I would color the pixels in such a way as to make it appear like a light source was hitting then.
—Were the backgrounds your only contribution to Side Arms?
Yasuda: Working on the backgrounds alone would have been boring, so I also drew the player character and enemy sprites.
—Now that you mention it, the designs do resemble Z Gundam.
Yasuda: Yeah, because I was watching Z Gundam while I drew them! (laughs) Okamoto liked to come over and talk Gundam with me. “Yasuda, Z Gundam is great. But Quattro Bajeena is actually Char Aznable, don’t you think?” He was always calling him “Quattro Vagina!!!”
—Sounds like the kind of joke an old man would make.
Yasuda: He was still pretty young back then though. Anyway, as I completed more of the backgrounds for Side Arms, I started wanting to do something new, and I thought it would be fun to create an opening animation for Side Arms. The other team was still working on Gunsmoke then. Okamoto complained that it would take too much time, but I pointed out how Makaimura (Ghosts and Goblins) had an 8-second opening intro, and that was enough to persuade him.
Do you know the Side Arms opening? The Earth appears, and changes color from blue to red, while fighter ships warp in one-by-one, twinkling against the background of space. I used about 20 animation frames in total, it was really fun.
—How long did Side Arms take to develop?
Yasuda: About a year, I think. In the middle we moved the development to Osaka, and I moved into the company dorm there too, and began my “Osaka bachelor life”. Gunsmoke was finished shortly thereafter. It was very popular. After that it was like, ok, now we’ve really got to finish Side Arms, but we just weren’t making any progress on our own. Ultimately Okamoto had to join the development and then we finished it up in three months.
—That’s not surprising though, as Side Arms was like a crash course for you in designing backgrounds, pixel art, and animation all at once. How many pcbs did Capcom ship?
Yasuda: Around 5000, if I recall.
—Wow, that sounds like a hit. Did the success of Side Arms finally put you on a solid financial footing, then?
Yasuda: Yeah, I got two raises that year. In the beginning I wasn’t a full-time employee so my wages were low, but it shot up after that. Plus I didn’t really go out much so it was easy to save. I rather preferred being at the office to going out.
—Did you take vacation days?
Yasuda: We had them, but Okamoto would get mad if you took the day off. A lot of people got yelled at by him for that, “Hey, why weren’t you here on Sunday?!”
Original Side Arms mecha sketches, taken from Akiman’s Twitter account.
—Wow, that’s pretty strict… The next game you worked on was Forgotten Worlds.
Yasuda: With Forgotten Worlds, I had decided I wanted to try being a planner. I asked Okamoto about it, and after going to the bathroom he came back and was like, “Sure.” He put me on the team that had been working on the predecessor to Forgotten Worlds.
—Forgotten Worlds was a unique game, with its rotary controls and 2-player co-op.
Yasuda: Half of those ideas came from Okamoto. He had his own individual theories and notions about what made a game good. He thought games were better with two players, that scoring with two players was more fun, that the game should include a really powerful attack, and so on. The original idea for Forgotten Worlds, in fact, came from Okamoto wanting to make a gameplay system where players could work together to purchase things.
—And then you inherited those plans, and developed them further?
Yasuda: Not exactly. Unfortunately Okamoto’s original plans weren’t working out too well, so they brought Capcom’s first “pure” game planner on-board, Akira Nishitani. Up to then, a “planner” was just someone who had been promoted from their position as a programmer or designer, but Nishitani was the very first person to be hired as a planner from the start. Okamoto approved of my participation on condition that I support Nishitani.
—What kind of person was Nishitani?
Yasuda: He had worked as a game magazine writer since high school, and he used to write the strategy guide sections for Gamest. He was an incredible person. He had his own uniques theories and ideas too. Compared to him, my ideas looked like a hodgepodge of gimmicks, with lots of stuff that didn’t make sense.
—But this same Nishitani-Yasuda team would later give birth to the masterpiece Street Fighter II.
Yasuda: That’s right. But during Forgotten Worlds, we found ourselves in the midst of a serious ROM production crisis and our production capacity dropped to 20%.
—Yes, I remember very few Forgotten Worlds pcbs were shipped.
Yasuda: Also, for some reason during the Forgotten Worlds development, we also created this hentai mahjong game called “Mahjong Gakuen” (mahjong academy). Ultimately it ended up not being released by Capcom, but it was planned and designed by Okamoto. That was a very fortuitious project. The art I drew wasn’t too explicit, more of a winking-and-hinting kind of hentai… the game was a huge hit and I got a big bonus thanks to it. Okamoto gave me a 1.08 million yen bonus (roughly 10.8k USD).
—It’s amazing how THAT is the game that got you a bonus. How many pcbs of Mahjong Gakuen were shipped?
Yasuda: Around 12000.
The cast of Mahjong Gakuen, as seen at the end of the game; it’s been alleged that Capcom’s female employees were used as models for the game’s characters.
—Wow, another huge hit!
Yasuda: Right after finishing Mahjong Gakuen, I had an opportunity to take a trip overseas. I visited San Francisco and New Orleans, and went to the American video game trade expos there. The games that were really popular were games I didn’t think were interesting at all: stuff like Datsugoku (P.O.W.) and Double Dragon. The masterpiece I loved, Gradius, made no money at all, and Capcom’s Son Son and Gunsmoke were also not doing very well. Super Real Mahjong PII was there too, but it wasn’t faring well either.
—You got to witness first-hand the difference between Japanese and American tastes.
Yasuda: I asked one of the Capcom USA employees, and another Japanese person who was living in America, what the reason for this was. What I learned was that, in America, it appeared that game centers used a token system, where people would buy a bunch of tokens and then use them in a flurry all at once. In other words, while Japanese people would treat an arcade game as something you spent 100 yen on for each play, in contrast Americans would buy all their tokens up front and then buy multiple credits for a game in one go. They weren’t trying to clear the stages on one coin; they just wanted to have a good time punching and beating stuff up.
I realized then that if Capcom wanted to succeed in America, we were going to have to make an about-face and create a game like Double Dragon or Datsugoku. With those thoughts in my head I returned to Japan, and the new game I thought up was Final Fight.
—That makes sense. A belt-scrolling fighter.
Yasuda: I was really aggressive about my ideas when I got back. Nishitani had not been to America, so I was the only one insisting that we had to change course. But Nishitani was very smart, and he soon grasped the situation, and he helped me out on the planning for Final Fight.
The first and most important thing was that I wanted to make an action game with better movement than Double Dragon or P.O.W. To that end I added a jump button, plus the ability to do different attacks depending on how many times you hit the attack button.
I also wanted to improve the efficiency of our development process. With Mahjong Gakuen, I had experienced how adding more people could speed up the development: we used about 20 people to make Mahjong Gakuen and muscled through it in a month. I was excited to see what amazing feats we could pull off with a properly organized development, and I was very eager to put that experience to use on Final Fight.
—You were moving on from a time-intensive, craftsman approach to game development, towards a more efficient, factory-like development.
Yasuda: On a good day I could draw 8 animation patterns. At the same time, two graphics designers could be working on pixel art, and two designers could work on backgrounds. In this way we established an assembly-line style division of labor. As a result, amazingly we managed to finish Final Fight in half a year!
Yasuda: Of course, there were lots of issues. There was a sheet of paper on my desk that had all the calculations for how much memory we were allocating to each part, and that paper got lost at some point, so we inadvertently ran out of memory for the items… we barely found some space just before the deadline, and just managed to squeeze everything in. Everyone was super excited, people were going around yelling “It’s a miracle!!” And we ended up selling 30,000 pcbs.
—A new record.
Yasuda: Yeah, it kind of gave me a big head. “Why aren’t we doing this for all our developments???” I was riding high. Okamoto praised me too. Even Noritaka Funamizu, the senior colleague I was most intimidated by then, said “Hey, this is pretty fun.” And so, as time went on, the organization and administrative aspects of our developments at Capcom improved, and we also solved the ROM supply problem we were having.
—At last we come to Street Fighter II. A joint effort between you and Akira Nishitani, how did this project get underway?
Yasuda: Nishitani really came into his own then, it was amazing. It was like seeing the birth of a leader, you know? All of his communication with the staff became commanding and confident: “This should be like this here”, “This part would be better this way”, that kind of thing. He was like a god at Capcom.
—Nishitani had the confidence that only success can bring.
Yasuda: His planning documents were extremely simple. He used to write his comments in these big, childish handwriting on the documents, so big it made you laugh: “THIS PERSON IS FAST, THEIR SPECIALTY IS MID-AIR FIGHTING. THROWS ARE LIKE THIS. MID-DISTANCE ATTACK IS A SLAP. HURRICANE KICK LOOKS LIKE THIS.” And his notes were intentionally vague, so that every department had to flesh out the details on their own. That’s how the character creation process went in Street Fighter II.
—Were the “weird” characters like Dhalsim and Blanka also Nishitani’s idea?
Yasuda: The characters for SFII were checked by three people: myself, Nishitani, and another developer. We’d go through the moves one-by-one and approve them. There was this unspoken rule we operated by, where “It wasn’t good until it made us laugh.” Take Dhalsim’s punch, for example. In the actual planning documents, we set a limit on punches, that they couldn’t extend further than 128 pixels. But in that process of reviewing the characters, we decided to extend it a little further, then a little further, then a little further more… until one day we saw how long his arms came out and everyone cracked up. That was the moment we knew it was good.
That attitude transformed the atmosphere of the development. Joking around and laughing became the rule of the day. Blanka, too, started out with normal skin color, but as we were flipping through the pallete and trying out different colors, green came up, and everyone burst out laughing. It was like, “What?! Why would this human have green skin..!?” We thought it was hilarious.
—Balrog (Vega overseas) was another crazy character.
Yasuda: Balrog’s creation was really something. Looking back at it, it’s hard to convey how impressed I was. When Nishitani was imagining the characters for SFII, he divided them into different nationalities and their respective fighting styles. First he would choose their country (India, Japan, USA etc), then he would figure out a fighting style that matched it, like sumo or boxing. After matching all those up, the only ones that were leftover were “Spain” and “Ninja”. He had wanted to use ninjas for Japan, but Japan already had karate and sumo. So he just combined what he had leftover and came up with the “Spanish Ninja”.
—A spaniard who can use the Izuna Drop technique!
Yasuda: Indeed. I remember being pretty uncomfortable with the idea at first. “Would someone like that really exist…?” But he ended up becoming one of the most original characters of the cast. I learned a lot from Balrog actually. Just because a designer pours his love into the character he’s created, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be an amazing or memorable character. It took the somewhat insane and audacious vision of the planner to realize something truly original.
—Chun-Li was the character you supervised, I believe.
Yasuda: The truth is, I had almost no time to come up with Chun-Li. I had to review the animation patterns for all the different characters, you see. Plus some characters ended up having too many patterns and we couldn’t fit it all into the memory… shaving that down and making cuts took us about half a year.
—How did you go about that process, of trimming the animation down?
Yasuda: Normal walking used six frames of animation, but we also made characters who used only four frames. Dhalsim’s weird way of walking was done with four frames.
—And all that side work took away from your time to focus on Chun-Li’s design, then.
Yasuda: Looking after the development and supervising everything took up all my time, as you’d expect, and before I knew it there was only a month and a half till the deadline. On top of that, I had more work pushed on me—I had to draw the Magic Sword poster and take part in kacho (section chief) training. So I ended up only having 5 weeks to design Chun-Li, it just got crazier and crazier for me.
Yasuda: I had just been promoted to Managing Section Chief. I had to do an overnight retreat with all the section chiefs where we practiced conflict resolution and other interpersonal skills.
—I’m surprised they made you do that, given the time pressure you were under for SFII.
Yasuda: Yeah, tell me about it! I’m also a naturally quiet person so people at the retreat complained I wasn’t participating.
—How did you manage to come up with Chun-Li in such a short period, then?
Yasuda: I knew that I had to do things as efficiently and quickly as possible or I wasn’t going to make it in time. So I first created all of her unique and flashy moves, and for her normal punches/kicks, I re-used the animation from other characters. When we created our animation patterns, those patterns already contained about 50-60% of the pixel art we’d end up using. So I copied those patterns and then adapted the art to Chun-Li. It was extremely repetitive and tedious work, but if I didn’t do it, everyone else’s work would go to waste, so I just pushed through.
—How did you come up with the design for Chun-Li?
Yasuda: My first idea resembled the Chinese character Tao from the Genma Taisen (Genma Wars) animated movie, with big wide-legged pants. She would also have that front and back apron. The character wasn’t very sexy though, and my design lacked visual impact and personality. So at the 11th hour, I experimented and made a bunch of frantic changes to the pixel art. First I tried giving her bare legs and a bodycon dress. That made her look like a female pro-wrestler, a sort of “fake” kung-fu fighter. It’s a little bit hard to describe in words, but it had a lot of impact, and I decided to go with it and release her to the world this way. She became far more popular than I had imagined, I was shocked. I guess part of it was that she was the only female character in the game.
—Her audacious “fashion sense” also made a big impact: the big spiked gauntlets, white boots, and her hair buns.
Yasuda: When I got down to drawing the pixel art for Chun-Li, her arms and legs were a little hard to make out. The area around her legs was dark so I had to make her boots white, and the hair buns also had to be white or they wouldn’t stand out visually. As far as I know that fashion didn’t exist in China before, but since Chun-Li came out, it seems like it’s become an accepted thing.
—How many SFII pcbs did Capcom ship?
Yasuda: The first printing was somewhere between 70 to 80 thousand. Soon after the pirated knock-offs started going around. I heard that eventually we had something like 800,000 Street Fighter II pcbs circulating worldwide. I remember how amazing that seemed for a non-console game. The game struck a chord in people around the world… it’s one of the amazing things about video games. There are fans in Mexico, fans in Africa. The name “AKIMAN” would end up being known the world round.