Steel Battalion – 2002 Developer Interview
Taken from the October 2002 issue of Famitsu Xbox, this interview covers the making of Capcom and Nude Maker’s uncompromising military vehicle simulator Steel Battalion, released exclusively for the original Xbox and famously designed in tandem with a multi-piece, 44-input cockpit-style control panel. The incredible header image here was drawn by artist Kontrol.
Sawaki Takeyasu (Capcom) – Art Director
Hirokazu Yonezuka (Capcom) – Vertical Tank animator
Junya Tasaki (Capcom) – Environment designer
Yuichi Akimoto (Capcom) – Object Modeler
—Please tell us how each of you came to be involved in the Steel Battalion development.
Yonezuka: The three of us joined the project right after finishing Devil May Cry, at Shinji Mikami’s direction, right? (laughs) We weren’t involved from the start. It was only when the development got stuck, around September of last year, that we joined up.
Tasaki: It was an awkward situation for all of us. (laughs) And also, at that time there were no working graphics or video footage yet. It had only just been decided that we’d release it for the Xbox, so initially it was just a lot of basic research that had to be done.
Yonezuka: While the game plans had been firmed up, there were no graphics or visuals done yet, not of the VTs (Vertical Tanks), or anything. It was just a lot of text and ideas.
—That’s just… wow. (laughs)
Tasaki: Steel Battalion was a popular project at Capcom, so I was happy to be on the team. But once I joined, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made a major mistake. I mean, I can joke about it all now, but I was very anxious then. But the planning docs were very clear and well-done, and once we entered the graphics-creation stage of the development, Yonezuka took the lead on the direction the visual presentation would take: “a world viewed through the video monitor.” After that was decided, things progressed quickly.
Takeyasu: It was good that we were able to get the whole team on the same page early on. We really wanted to go all-out on the graphics, so we also pressured the producer about giving us more time and extending the development deadline. (laughs)
—It seems like there was something very different about the Steel Battalion development, compared to other games.
Yonezuka: Yeah, this probably depends on which part of the development you were on, but I think there’s one thing we all had in common. We always want to be very thorough and craftsmanlike in our work, but this time certain sacrifices had to be made, and quantity had to be prioritized over quality. The planners were very explicit about what they wanted from the game, so there weren’t many places we could afford to cut. However, thanks to director Hifumi Kono’s clear leadership, we were able to, quite naturally, pull together in the same direction. Everyone showed up and gave their best, you could say.
Takeyasu: Once everyone could see the vision, my anxiety went away. But yeah, at the first meeting, I fought with Kono. (laughs) I didn’t want to end up having regrets about not speaking up, so I figured I should vent my spleen here and now rather than wait, when it would be meaningless to complain. Later Kono and I had some great discussions about life and everything, though, and the two of us ended up getting along surprisingly well. In the end it all turned out alright.
—The Steel Battalion development team only had 20 members. That seems a bit on the small side.
Yonezuka: Yeah, when you include the sound and programmers, it was about 20 people. It’s about medium sized for one of our developments; not a huge project with close to 100 people, but not a bare minimum skeleton crew either. I suppose it’s kind of a rare middle ground, given how most developments fall into one of those two extremes. With a team this size it’s easier to achieve consensus too. But also, everyone on the team is very earnest, so things never got too stressful.
—You said earlier that the visual presentation you had in mind was that of “a world as viewed through a video monitor”, but could you give some concrete details about how you achieved that?
Yonezuka: One thing was that, since you’re sitting in your VT and looking at the outside world through an external camera, we thought it should be hard to see, so we added visual noise to the screen. Another technique, which we actually used in Devil May Cry, was to have actual photographs posted in the backgrounds. We thought that would make it look more realistic… well, it was supposed to do that, but because we weren’t familiar with the Xbox hardware it gave us no end of trouble.
We had envisioned a dense, urban environment for the game, so we went to Hong Kong and took a ton of photographs, which we used for the building textures. The sound guys came along too, and recorded the sounds of the congested cityscape. They were just doing field recordings the whole time. (laughs)
—No doubt it’s thanks to those extra efforts, though, that Steel Battalion has such a singular visual realism.
Yonezawa: The programmers gave a lot of tips and pointers about how to create the visual assets, too. That was a big influence on how it turned out. When we first began creating the graphics, the programmers wrote a program for us that created shadows for the VTs. We knew we absolutely wanted this in the final version, even if we had to remove other things to make space for it. The programmers were very proactive.
They did a lot of other stuff too, like lighting (afterimage effects), and depth-of-field effects—things that could only be done on the Xbox hardware. Ultimately we ended up using the Xbox hardware’s pixel shading effects, which helped the visuals looks more dramatic and exciting.
Takeyasu: I remember at one point, there was so many improvements that the quality of the visuals was changing practically every day. One day the VTs were the color imo youkan (sweet potato youkan), the next the ground was golden… (laughs)
—It seems like a reflection of the passion and ambition the whole team had, to create a good game.
Yonezawa: Each time a new revision or upgrade to the visuals came out, the whole team would gather round and ooo and aaa about how cool it looked now. (laughs)
—How did the actual VT modeling work proceed?
Takeyasu: When I began the modeling work, the basic concept for the VTs had already been solidified, and the initial designs were starting to come my way. My work was to take those first 2D designs and translate them into 3D. I have to supplement those 2D drawings and blueprints with my imagination, though. Plus, I was the only person doing the VT modeling, and I didn’t pitch a fit about it but I did complain that I couldn’t do all 20 by myself. (laughs) But the mecha designer Junji Okubo, he had a method where he would first create the 3D modeling data himself, and then use that for his 2D design drawings. He gave me that data, and it helped me with the frame modeling. Thanks to him my work process was sped up hugely.
—Do you have any interesting episodes or challenges to share about the VT design process?
Takeyasu: The Decider was one of the earlier VTs I created, so there was a lot of experimenting with it… try as I might, I just couldn’t get it right. For example, compared to the original design, which was drawn in a more diagonal perspective, the actual in-game models are mostly viewed head-on, on a horizontal plane, so even though they had been modeled precisely after the designs people still said it looked nothing like what they had imagined. Getting the concept art and models to match up was a big hurdle for us early on.
Also, many of the VT models looked way too small in-game, so we had to exaggerate some of their features so that players would be able to tell, even from afar, that it was the Decider they were looking at. As for their movement, the concept art didn’t show too many actual joints on the VTs, so figuring out how to handle that was another big challenge.
Akimoto: For the Vitzh’s design, the torso and shoulders are supposed to move independently, but getting them to move without hitting each other was very difficult. The unusual way they walk was hard too. It was unlike any robot I’d done before: no hands, and the shape of the feet are different from human feet, which caused motion artist Tomoya Ootsubo a lot of pain, trying to figure out how it should get up when it’s knocked over, and how to make the running look suitably non-human.
—One of the special features of Steel Battalion is the strong militaristic atmosphere and style. What were some of the things you focused on there?
Takeyasu: The things is, the further you go in pursuing a military aesthetic, the more monotonous the visuals become. So we did our best to make the characters stand out, so you could clearly distinguish between the mechs even at a distance. Also, once we saw the models actually moving around in-game, we put a lot of effort into revising them to get them closer to the original planning concept art.
One problem we ran into mid-development, however, was that the atmosphere of the overall visuals kept changing. More than the individual VTs, we prioritized the way the overall visuals looked, you see, so each time something changed globally like that we’d have to go and re-work the models. It was painstaking. (laughs)
—Can you tell us more about how you went about creating the backgrounds?
Tasaki: The first phase was just creating buildings, building after building. (laughs) I think there were 50 or 60 different types alone. We couldn’t put a huge amount of detail into each individual building, but by the same token, we had a rich variety of different types and a huge volume of content. On the technical side of things, the Xbox has a hard disk installed, which allowed us to have such a variety of buildings. One of the programmers told me that we’d allocated processing power for the urban buildings that was equivalent to displaying 130 enemies from Devil May Cry simultaneously. So hearing that, I didn’t hardly worry myself with hardware limitations, and just kept making different buildings.
—It really is dense with buildings. An urban jungle. (laughs)
Tasaki: Partly that’s because the game begins in an extremely dense urban stage—maybe the most densely packed one in the game. Otherwise, later I also helped out on creating other objects, like bridges and underground passageways. Once that was done, we moved onto making the terrain. The basic terrain was created in software, but for a time director Kono was also chipping away at them himself. Drawing maps, tinkering with enemy placement… I was surprised at how many different things I saw him doing during the development. That was partly why the background work went relatively smoothly and didn’t require a lot of adjustment once it was done.
—Most of the backgrounds are also destructible.
Tasaki: We had an animation specialist who worked specifically on that problem, creating a special pattern for when things are destroyed. He made them look great. Working alongside him, we also had a specialist working on smoke and fire effects. Our goal was to make sure the visuals didn’t look too “pretty”, but properly evoked the atmosphere of a war-torn battlefield, and I think we successfully achieved that.
—How did everyone feel when they saw the final visuals with all the trimmings?
Yonezuka: That we’d given it our very best, I think. Satisfaction. If you ask me whether the graphics are “high quality”, well, I think there are still some rough spots. Though they still have grit, the visuals came out more impressionistic than photo-realistic.
Takeyasu: It was a novel approach we took. It felt like we were ahead of our time, like future games to come would probably imitate this aesthetic.
Yonezuka: I think focusing on the positives and our strengths, and not getting hung up on the negative, really paid off for us. To make an analogy, it’s less like Hollywood and more like a Hong Kong movie. It’s a whole different vector we pursued.
Tasaki: I’m very satisfied with the finished product too. I actually got completely absorbed in the game when I was playing it during the debugging. There haven’t been many games lately that you can focus on like this.
Special Comment – Team Nude Maker/Director Hifumi Kono
Many people have said that Steel Battalion’s appeal lies in the unique controller or the realism of the battlefield, but as the director, those weren’t the things I focused my attention on. For me, the important thing was that, yes, while we had this unique controller, I knew Steel Battalion needed solid, reliable gameplay. I’m very proud that we were able to achieve a game that doesn’t just use this controller as a gimmick, but includes serious strategy gameplay on the software side, too, like the selection of your VT before deployment, the choice of strategic routes, and more.
It was when the team was still struggling to decide on a basic mech design, that I randomly happened to come across some of Junji Okubo’s mecha designs, and they made a huge impression on me. At that point I didn’t know about Newtype Magazine, so the designs I saw were all non-bipedal, but even so, those designs of his were tremendously convincing, and I clearly felt the artist’s desire to break down the walls of what was considered mecha design up to then.
Later we met, and we decided to hire Okubo, but I would say the biggest reason for choosing him was that he was a mecha designer trying to escape the bounds of anime tropes. Of course, I was a little worried whether a non-anime design would be well received, but I simply felt that if we wanted to make something new, we needed someone like that.
The font for 鉄騎 (Tekki, the JP title for Steel Battalion) also has an interesting story to it. After the title Tekki was decided on, Takeyasu, who was in charge of the title screen layout, told me he wanted to go for a simple layout, for which we would need a logo with a lot of power and presence. After that I bought a calligraphy brush and ink, and had everyone on the staff try drawing the kanji in a calligraphic style… but naturally they all came out poorly. After much fretting, I finally decided to ask for the help of an actual calligrapher. We selected Daiei Mori since he was young and up-and-coming, but we also felt some kind of kinship between us, which was the deciding factor. I’ll never forget his words when we first met: “you know, I actually hate calligraphy.”
Toshiyuki Kikuzuki, a writer for a combat magazine, was also brought on as a military adviser for Steel Battalion. His main job was writing and formatting the mission briefing and control manual text, and across the entire game he gave us invaluable advice. At our first meeting, I was worried that we’d brought on someone who was hardcore to the point of intolerance, but he understood Steel Battalion’s appeal as a video game, and he also understood the realism we wanted to express, so working with him was a smooth and painless experience. So I should say here, that if something does feel “off” or unnatural from a military standpoint, it was probably a decision our staff made rather than Kikuzuki’s advice.
Also, while Steel Battalion has a stiffer difficulty curve than most games released recently, so long as the pilot doesn’t slack off in their training, even players who aren’t good at action games should definitely be able to clear it. Be sure to try and clear every stage, and do your best!
Special Comment – Mecha Designer Junji Okubo
The concept design drawings may come off as somewhat elaborate and showy, but the VTs are not supposed to be cartoonish robot “outfits”—they’re slow, plodding weapons of war piloted by the player, and their designs should convey a sense of realism too.
Those were the two things I had foremost in my mind as I drew them. The challenge, as I saw it, was how to make it look natural and believable when the player saw a bunch of these 20-meter high VTs all lined up against the backdrop of the urban landscape. But when I finally saw the completed visuals that the entire staff had contributed their efforts to, and the VTs actually moving around in-game there, the level of polish exceeded my expectations. I was deeply impressed.
Special “Post-Release” Comment – Producer Atsushi Inaba
We’re happy that Steel Battalion has received such a big response from players. Judging from the momentum of all the feedback we’re getting, it feels like we could sell a million copies. (laughs)
As a game, Kono told me “We’ve realized 100% of what we wanted to do.” From a producer’s perspective, there was so much we wanted to do, it felt like no matter how many people we threw at the project it wouldn’t have been enough. But the producer is also the first “player” to experience the game. It was a pleasure to experience firsthand all these surprises, and the entire staff was kind enough to relay their satisfaction to me.
Our same staff is working on an online version right now, and I’m confident we will make something good here too. The truth is, Kono is already thinking up some grand new plans and designs for it. I can’t tell you a definite timeline now but we’d like to release this soon. We don’t want there to be too big of a gap, and Kono isn’t known for taking the cautious route. (laughs)
I’m very sorry that the release of Steel Battalion was delayed, but I think the extra time resulted in a game that’s so fun you can lose yourself in it completely. Give it everything you’ve got when you play it.
Post-Release Short Interview – Producer Atsushi Inaba
—It looks like Steel Battalion was a very eventful development.
Inaba: Yes, it was a really interesting project–you could say the entire two-year period was one crazy long episode. All’s well that ends well though. What comes to mind now, as I think back on it, were all the raucous, noisy meetings we had together. It was more than a violation of corporate standards of etiquette… it was a violation of human standards of decency! Mikami and myself are included in that indictment.
—How much of your initial vision for Steel Battalion do you feel you were able to realize?
Inaba: 150 percent. Kono betrayed my expectations, in a good sense.
—How has the response been now that it’s released?
Inaba: Well, there’s a lot of hardcore maniac fans, and they’re very opinionated. It seems that everyone was drawn in by the unique controller, but many users have told us that once they started playing, the gameplay itself sucked them in. It looks like we’ve even created some Steel Battalion addicts, I’m afraid.
—How’s the overseas version coming along?
Inaba: We’ve finished the development for it. All we have now is to wait for release. We don’t have a lot of news on our end, but the interest has been impressive so far. At present it’s looking like the reception may turn out better in Europe than the States.
—And the online features everyone is waiting for…?
Inaba: We’ve only just started development on them. We’re doing our best to make sure we don’t let down everyone who’s bought our game. That’s all I can say for now about that.
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