Akira Yasuda – 2000 Developer Interview
In this 2000 interview from Game Maestro volume 4, legendary artist and designer Akira “Akiman” Yasuda reflects on his origins as a developer, his early days at Capcom and his work on massively popular and genre-defining titles including Final Fight and Street Fighter II, with a particular emphasis on his awakening to the essence of game design growth from mere “dotter” to fully-fledged game craftsperson.
—When did you first become aware of the possibility of using a computer to draw?
Yasuda: It was when I was going to art school. After I graduated high school, I moved to Tokyo. I thought I had some talent in drawing, you know. I’d been the best guy at drawing up in my hometown in Hokkaido, so I thought I’d try my hand in the big city. The thing is, if you’re the best at something in your own local sphere, there’s a chance you might actually be the best there is! So I enrolled in a school for designers in Tokyo, as a scholarship student.
When I got there, though, it turned out that almost everyone there had no drawing experience at all. The period that followed, I call my personal “dark age.” I’d wake up early every morning to deliver newspapers, go to school, and then go right to sleep. It was during these days of exceeding monotony that a fellow student happened to buy a PC-6001. You could program on it, and draw, and by mixing colors you could actually get a pretty wide palette out of it. I thought this thing was amazing! Unfortunately, it didn’t have enough video graphic memory, so things with a lot of lines, like facial outlines, would cause it to error. After experiencing that, I was resolved: “I want to draw pictures with a computer!” And so I went and bought a Toshiba Pasopia 7.
—I’m curious, what were some of the first drawings you made on your Pasopia 7?
Yasuda: I bought some graph paper, and made careful measurements of the coordinates (for connecting the lines) which I then used to draw Lum-chan from Urusei Yatsura. BASIC Magazine had published the pixel art maps for the sprites from Xevious, and I also used that to draw those. When I later joined Capcom, you see, I had already had some experience with pixel art.
—So your pixel art debut was Urusei Yatsura’s Lum, interesting. There was a real anime boom going on then, so that makes sense. I’ve heard you also had a period where you worked in animation after graduating?
Yasuda: It was the golden age of stuff like Macross and Combat Mecha Xabungle, so yeah, I wanted to be an animator. I got hired by an animation studio, and I did a drawing of Emma Sheen from Mobile Suit Z Gundam, as well as some cel animation for Hokuto no Ken and Konpora Kid. The problem was, you could draw 20 cels in a day, but you’d only make a measly 40000 or 50000 yen a month (approx 400-500 USD). In the end I didn’t even have enough money to commute to the studio, so I stopped going. After that I tried finding more art-related work, while doing part-time jobs to survive.
—Did you apply to Capcom because you were interested in video games, then?
Yasuda: No, I actually was completely unaware that Capcom was a game company. The job advertisement I saw said nothing about games either, it was like, “Do you want to make commercials? Do you want to be a designer?” I thought that sounded cool so I went to the interview, and the interviewer, Yoshiki Okamoto, told me to come in and start the day after next. I was impressed by how quick and effortless the process was. But when that day came, I had to have Capcom pay for my train fare. That’s how poor I was.
—Hired on the spot, wow. Did you bring any of your work to the interview?
Yasuda: Yeah, just a few things. I brought an illustration for Captain Future, this sci-fi series I liked, and a few cels from my work as an animator. For the interview test, Capcom asked me to draw a picture of a running person. I was very nervous though, and kept re-drawing it and starting over, I just couldn’t get it right. Finally I got it decent, and they said “That’s enough, can you start the day after tomorrow?” I think they probably made their decision based on what they saw of my drawing process, not the final result.
—One of the legendary stories we’ve heard about you at Capcom, is that you came to the interview in your pajamas.
Yasuda: I don’t remember doing that. But it’s true, that at that time, I didn’t own a proper dress shirt, so maybe I did wear pajamas. And it’s also true that I did show up to work multiple times in my pajamas later, so. (laughs) My behavior in those days has probably given Okamoto a lot of fodder for his stories.
—Once you were hired, did you start working on games right away?
Yasuda: Yeah, they put me in charge of background graphics. From the very first day I had people working under me, in fact. A very cute girl named Aoki-san. I think it was probably tough for her, to have this nobody come in all of the sudden and be your boss. Okamoto handed me the map for the first stage of a game called Sidearms, and said: “You’re going to do the rest of these stages. You know what you’re doing!” I was amazed. “Wow, Okamoto, putting his trust in this brand new hire… I love this guy!
—It seems like it would be difficult to design background graphics right away if you didn’t know anything about the programming side, though. Was that the case?
Yasuda: The thing is, we were all amateurs back then, so everything was always half-finished and incomplete. It would take us about a year to complete a game, but in the final three months Okamoto would come in and personally start making cuts to the plans so we could finish. I kept creating graphics up to the very end, but the maps I made often didn’t connect up with each other. (laughs) I guess I just didn’t want to do something “typical” or common, so I would fill the screen with these huge, elaborate sprites… I wanted to do something new, and I guess that partly accounts for the delays. It took Okamoto’s intervention and impatience to ferry us safely across the finish line.
—After managing to finish Sidearms, your next game was Forgotten Worlds, released in 1988.
Yasuda: This was when Akira Nishitani joined Capcom, after me. He had been a writer for BEEP magazine, and was a member of this famous early gaming circle called Tougenkyou. In those days at Capcom, after you got the hang of working as a graphic artist, you’d be given the opportunity to take charge of planning a new game. That was the typical path. But Okamoto thought it might be interesting to shake things up and hire a dedicated, “real” planner who would work on planning from the start. And so he hired Nishitani, who was 18 then.
Nishitani quickly became Okamoto’s top brain at Capcom, the guy he relied on ahead of all the older, more senior employees. They became thick as thieves, Nishitani and Okamoto. He was like the Zhuge Liang of Capcom. However, although Nishitani understood gameplay very well, when it came to graphics he didn’t know enough to appoint the right person to the job. So I ended up joining the Forgotten Worlds development. In contrast to Nishitani, my grasp of game design was weak, but I excelled at creating things.
—So that’s how the Yasuda/Nishitani combo first came together.
Yasuda: If you said to our boss, Yoshiki Okamoto, that you wanted to work on a certain development, he would let you. “But you have to take the responsibility,” he’d say. That was his style. Of course, in actuality the final responsibility rested on his shoulders, but… (laughs) Back then, when Nishitani talked about game design, it was like he was speaking an alien language to me. I didn’t understand any of it. Up until then I had just been muddling my way through my work, but it was from this point onwards that I really developed a better theoretical understanding of what I was doing. Nishitani, he was operating on a whole other level then. He was someone who could actually answer that ever-elusive question of “what makes something fun?”
—Was Forgotten Worlds the first game you made that answered that question adequately, then?
Yasuda: Ultimately Forgotten Worlds ended up taking over two years, I think. Without realizing it, in that span of time it transformed me into an actual pro, someone who could actually create something from scratch. However, my initial creations were too unusual. I was so focused on creating weird stuff, and it honestly got so bad that it stalled out the development and we couldn’t finish. Okamoto then came to me and said, “You have one month to finish your graphics. If you don’t, I’ll do it.” And in fact, other people did have to step in for us to finish on time.
—You must have been very upset about that.
Yasuda: I was, but I learned so much from the experience of making Forgotten Worlds. For example, President Tsujimoto told me once that “Customers are only interested in what they’re familiar with.” In the first stage of Forgotten Worlds, originally all the sprites and backgrounds were composed of strange, inorganic textures and shapes. On President Tsujimoto’s advice, I swapped those out for ruined buildings. The President told me if I didn’t use more familiar objects as my design motifs, customers wouldn’t find it interesting. When I heard those words, it was like a light bulb went on in my head.
Another thing I learned in Forgotten Worlds… Okamoto told me “Don’t add a ‘speed-up’ as one of the power ups.” In Forgotten Worlds, your character got stronger by picking up various power-ups, but at that time in the arcade scene, speed-ups were not very popular—that is to say, you didn’t necessarily feel excited or happy about picking one up. Ah hah, I realized—game design isn’t always about doing what’s logical—it’s about emotions, and how those emotions change as you’re playing. In other words, it’s about making players feel happy. This, and what I was saying about familiarity, were the two biggest paradigm shifts for me in my personal history as a developer.
—After Forgotten Worlds, you worked on Final Fight and Street Fighter II.
Yasuda: There had been talk before about creating a sequel to Street Fighter, but there was a memory supply problem going on then. The first Street Fighter used a 24MB ROM, but because of this shortage, we would have to make the sequel with only 16MB. The first Street Fighter was something we all held in very high regard, so we didn’t want to make a sequel with those memory limitations. So instead we made Final Fight, a belt-scrolling action game which seemed more like something we could manage given those constraints.
I had been to America before, and I saw that these kind of beat-em-ups were popular there. “Ah, maybe Americans like games where you get to punch stuff?”, I thought to myself. I had also realized that there was room for improvement in the beat-em-up genre; I wanted to make something more flashy, with really big sprites and a lot more action. So I allocated about 1/3 of the memory for the player characters to animations—3MB, which was unprecedented at the time—and created 12 different animation patterns for each character. It was the first game in the world to do that. We also improved on the controls. Beat-em-ups back then weren’t really fun unless you were very good. As a player I could never distinguish between kicks and punches very well, so I decided to make “Attack” one single button. In exchange, for variation I made it so successive hits would create chains with different moves—now any player, no matter how skilled, could get a taste of that catharsis.
Ultimately, Nishitani worked his magic and somehow brought all these elements together. He added a lot of experimental gameplay ideas that ended up being a big success, and this made Final Fight more fun, but I was allowed to design the core concept and controls just as I wanted, which I was very happy about that. I was surprised when it ended up selling 30,000 copies.
—I see. Because Final Fight was a hit, you were then able to make Street Fighter II with a larger ROM.
Yasuda: That’s right. As a result, we were allowed to hire a lot more people too. Regarding Street Fighter II, everything about that game, from front to back, is owed to Nishitani. The previous game had only one protagonist, but now there were 8 to choose from. It was the first game with that kind of design. From the very beginning, I knew this was going to be a hit.
—The character designs, with all the different fighting styles, were quite novel too: martial artists, a Chinese girl, a beastman, a soldier, a sumo wrestler, a yoga hermit. In a sense, I think this is where we really see your creativity explode.
Yasuda: That wasn’t all my doing, to be sure. But you know, after its release, many people told me how “the characters don’t matter—they could just be blocks and lines. Graphics don’t matter. The only important thing is the risk-and-reward nature of the gameplay.” Yet it’s precisely the fact that the characters are depicted in a human form like this that has, for the first time, allowed us to create something that more fully utilizes human intelligence. You don’t have “kicks” in a game without human characters, after all. So I felt a deep despair when people would ignore that and talk to me about their shallow, simplistic theories on gameplay. For about 10 years after, I wouldn’t talk to anyone who said those kind of things.
—You couldn’t have a versus fighting game with a diverse roster like Street Fighter II without human characters. I can understand the despair you’d feel towards those who ignore that connection…
Yasuda: Take Sega’s Tetris, for example, where the long vertical piece is red. It has to be red, because that’s the color that grabs people’s attention. That was a quite natural design choice, and also a correct one.
—In other words, when we visualize the plans of a game, we do so in the language of visual design and graphics.
Yasuda: Yeah, my role as a designer is to express the plans of the game in visual form. Programmers do the same thing with their code when they create the rules of this game world. For both of us, our job is to immerse ourselves in those written plans and find the most suitable designs to translate that original vision into game form. There’s two dimensions: I talked about “human characters” in Street Fighter II just now, but if you go deeper, I think graphics are really an interface. If we consider a controller as a way for a human to speak with a computer, then graphics are the way the computer speaks to a human. If the graphics are flawed, you don’t have a game. I created Chun-Li’s graphics in just 1 month, but because the original plans for SFII were so excellent, it wasn’t an excessive workload.
—I see. And Street Fighter II’s success also brought you fame as a designer.
Yasuda: There’s a thing called a “concept car” that auto manufacturers sometimes make. The designs for concept cars aren’t super-detailed on the exact components used; they’re more focused on portraying the kind of car that people dream about driving. This captures the essence of what it means to be a designer, I think.
Unfortunately, back then at Capcom, the work of a designer wasn’t seen as important; pixel artists were just seen as “dotters” and nothing more.1 That’s why dotters used to have to do both concept work and animation themselves. That was fine back in the old days, but as times change, I feel like the conceptual side is going to become more and more important to game design. Over the years I’ve maintained my pride as a designer by being aware of that importance of conceptual work (which may seem like a waste of time at first glance) and creating designs that mesh closely with the intentions of the game.
—I can see how, much like your experience working closely with Nishitani on Forgotten Worlds, you’ve grown a lot in your thinking on these matters.
Yasuda: Whenever I’m going to make a game, I try to first imagine what the future will look like: who are the players? and what kind of games will they be playing? I calculate backwards from that reckoning, when I think about a new game. Proceeding from principles of gameplay and the like first, like Nishitani does, is not something I understand. However, if I abandoned theory entirely that would also limit my ability to do something new. Nishitani has talents I don’t possess, and combining our forces is what allowed us to make something so deep, I believe. By combining logic and feeling together, we weaved something new, a “feesic” 2 First, feeling and intuition try and imagine the future; then logic is applied to investigate the ways that vision could be realized. When I say logic, I don’t mean nitpicking small and irrelevant things either, but rather using logic to explore the deeper, more universal truths that lie within. Without this happy marriage of logic and intuition there’s no future.
—When you say “no future”, you mean the chance to make your next game…?
Yasuda: It’s that way every time. If the “now” is bad, there will be no “next”. When I was at Capcom, I made several games when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, so I always felt a sense of ownership with Capcom, like it was something that was mine. I feel good when I create something, but if Capcom falls, it would mean losing my own sense of purpose and meaning. “To play”—when you think about it, “play” means a succession of stimuli, of excitement. So if you just repeat the same thing again, then there’s no excitement there.
—A few years ago you established “Akiman Corp.” Did you go independent from Capcom then?
Yasuda: I don’t remember all the details, but in 1998, Yoshiki Okamoto told me “I set up a corporation for you, for tax purposes.” He did everything himself, including the name. (laughs)
—And what about the management of this corporation?
Yasuda: Okamoto handled that too. He used the support team on the 2F of Capcom’s HQ to provide management support for Akiman Corp. So I was still a Capcom employee, but in form only, I was independent. But words have a mysterious power, and just by knowing I was “technically” independent, I suddenly felt a great deal of freedom.
—You’d also been liberated from some of the busywork that most employees have to do.
Yasuda: Well, I hadn’t done much of that before either, to be honest. (laughs) Capcom didn’t start out as this big company, so the employees who were there early got promoted to management positions very quickly, and in order to grow the company, they consequently ended up spending less time doing actual, on-the-ground game development. But I had wanted to remain a “developer” on the front lines; I didn’t want to be surpassed by the next generation of young hires. This was my calling and I wanted to always remain actively involved. And the only way to do that, was to continue dedicating myself to drawing, always drawing. Most companies have a research department of some sort, right? Well, for me, drawing was my way of doing research. So all I ever did at Capcom was draw, draw, draw, and I never did any other busywork. In turn, though, every 5 years or so I was able to create a hit game, and that, I think, is what made people at Capcom think of me as indispensable. “Oh, Yasuda, he’s really got it, if we don’t use him, our game will suffer.”
—Eventually you went fully independent. Where did the confidence to take that step come from?
Yasuda: It was Turn A Gundam. I don’t know if it was purely coincidental, or if Okamoto had a hand in it, but director Yoshiyuki Tomino told me he had personally selected me for the job. I’d always thought of Tomino as someone who takes the preoccupations of men and masculinity very seriously. And I could see he felt a responsibility to the Gundam franchise by the way he took care of it and managed it after initially creating it.
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This is a Japanese term that simply means “someone who draws dot (pixel) art.” While not a derogatory term in and of itself, the implication here is that they weren’t asked or given the opportunity to think more deeply about the deeper design implications of their work.↩