Yoji Shinkawa – 2001 Developer Interview

Yoji Shinkawa - 2001 Developer Interview

This interview with famed Konami illustrator and designer Yoji Shinkawa first appeared in volume 4 of the Game Maestro book series. The thoughtful questions trace a path through Shinkawa's career, from catching Hideo Kojima's eye at Konami, to his latest efforts on Zone of Enders and MGS2. Along the way he also discusses Policenauts and the nuances of both mecha and "normal" character design.

—I've heard that some of the work you submitted to Konami when you applied to join the company made a big impact on Hideo Kojima.

Shinkawa: During my hiring interview, I brought with me some manga I had drawn during my time in my college manga club, some oil paintings I'd done in school, and some photographs I'd taken as well. There was also a test, and the work you're talking about that Kojima liked is probably what I produced for that. The theme for the test was "turtle."


Shinkawa: Yeah, I think they chose that because Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was popular then. I submitted three different interpretations of that turtle motif: an anthropomorphized turtle, a monstrous turtle, and a mecha turtle. Konami would have been fine with simple drawings for this test, but I thought I could do it better and quicker if I made an actual model. So I asked Kojima, who was in charge of the hiring interviews, if I could make some models using sculpey polymer clay. He replied, "Yeah, but remember the deadline is in a week." So I worked on them day and night.

—Wow, you made actual sculptures for your hiring test. I can see how that would have made a good impression on Kojima. Were you skilled at sculpting and modeling, then?

Shinkawa: I liked making plastic models, and I've been using oil-based clays since I was a kid. I still use clay, for example, when I'm doing mecha design. I have a hard time reaching a design I like just by drawing, but with clay I can get there right away.

Shinkawa at his desk, circa 2001.

—There are illustrators who will spend a tremendous amount of time getting a single line just right, but you solve that problem through sculpture.

Shinkawa: Lately a lot of my character designs end up becoming polygonal models in-game, so sculpture also has the advantage of making it easier for the 3D modelers. I created the Metal Gear Solid and Zone of Enders mechas in sculpey clay.

—I see. So it was sculpey clay that opened the doors of Konami for you. After you were hired, what did you first work on?

Shinkawa: There was a training period of about 6 months, during which I learned the pixel art process. After that I was assigned to Kojima's department. The first game I worked on was Policenauts (PC-98). It had already been mostly completed, so I helped out with bug checking while touching up some of the graphics. Policenauts featured those EMPS powered suits, but all the designers then were women, and they admitted they didn't understand mecha stuff. That being the case, I remember I offered myself as a candidate to design anything mecha related. The EMPS were based on Hajime Kato's original drawings, and the pixel renderings the female artists had made of those just felt wrong to me, so although it was somewhat presumptuous of me, I went ahead and revised them.

—Had you requested to be a part of Kojima's team?

Shinkawa: No. I was invited. Other departments had asked me too, but I tend to like games and art with a more serious touch, so I naturally felt more inclined towards Kojima's team.

—The Policenauts PC-98 version was finished shortly after you joined the team, then.

Shinkawa: Yeah, but the next work was also Policenauts. The 3DO port. All the graphics were re-drawn for it. Those graphics were not done in the traditional pixel art way—they were all re-drawn in photoshop.

—After Policenauts, starting with Metal Gear Solid all of the characters you designed were 3D polygon characters. That makes the PC-98 Policenauts your only time doing actual pixel artwork.

Shinkawa: Yeah. When we were making the 3DO port of Policenauts, they'd already begun planning for Metal Gear Solid. Kojima explained the plans to me and it sounded very interesting. I threw my hat in the ring—"Please let me work on this!"—and I was put in charge of the mecha design for the Metal Gear REX.

Though not a great image, this is the only one I could find of Shinkawa's "monster turtle" model that he created as part of his entrance test to Konami.

—The Metal Gear REX is introduced in the game as the ultimate weapon. I imagine that, from a design standpoint, it would need to convey malice, ultimate power, and at the same time be deadly serious. Did you have meetings about its design?

Shinkawa: No, once I was given the job, I holed up in my home and worked on the modeling by myself. There were almost zero orders from above, but among the preliminary sketches I drew, one of them looked like a dinosaur, and Kojima did single that one out. "Let's go with this." The development had just gotten started though, so either way, the main thing I was told was just to make a very cool-looking robot.

—And you again turned to sculpture.

Shinkawa: Yeah. Right after I'd finished the initial Metal Gear REX model, the Osaka earthquake hit. Konami's offices in Kobe took a lot of damage, but in some small saving grace, the Metal Gear models were not destroyed. I was very lucky. As it turned out, we ended up using those models for the final designs. It took three more years for the game to be released, though, so they might look a little outdated compared with the final versions.

—You worked on Metal Gear Solid for quite awhile, then.

Shinkawa: As the 3DO port of Policenauts neared completion, we paused the Metal Gear Solid development and focused on that. After the earthquake, our workspace moved from Kobe to Osaka, and we kept working on Policenauts for about a year there—we were working on Policenauts all the way up to 1996 when the Playstation port was released. But we also kept working on Metal Gear Solid at the same time.

—It seems like you're always juggling multiple developments. Metal Gear Solid had quite a lengthy development, but did it end up changing a lot from the initial plans?

Shinkawa: The overall roadmap had been pretty much laid out, but along the way there were things that became impractical, or ideas we couldn't realize, or stuff that just turned out not to be fun. So we did change those things. That's just how game development is—there's an inherently chaotic side to it. The way a development proceeds, it's really less about making the original story and scenario fit perfectly, and more about making sure that the individual situations are fun as you go. In Policenauts, for instance, there's a bomb defusing scene. That was added simply because Kojima wanted to do it, so we folded it into the story after the fact.

—There's also comical scenes in Metal Gear Solid, like the person hiding in a cardboard box, or gags involving the controller vibration. Was this a sense of humor that the whole staff shared?

Shinkawa: When Kojima first announces something, everyone thinks he's joking. But then he starts making it just as he said and we realize after the fact, "oh, he was serious." (laughs) Kojima is the kind of person who's constantly joking around. So you never know at first what's a joke and what's serious. If you leave him to his devices though he'll actually do the crazy stuff he says.

Policenauts' famous bomb defusal scene, captured using the well-received Policenauts fan translation.

—Kojima moved his team from Osaka to Tokyo after Metal Gear Solid was well underway, correct?

Shinkawa: Konami created KCE Japan, so the whole team moved to Tokyo then. We had 20 people at the time, but now we've got over 100.

—MGS and MGS2 both feature your unique illustrations. How did that work progress?

Shinkawa: The first thing I did was read Kojima's scenario to help stimulate my imagination. Then I just start sketching, not worrying myself with small details or faces or ages or anything like that. The best drawings I make are the ones I draw in my Muji sketchbook with pental pens, in one burst of creativity. It's easier for me to visualize things this way, compared with making pencil drawings with detailed line work. However, recently they've had to create very detailed graphics for the PS2, so they've been requesting more detailed, finished work from me. They say the brush pen sketches are a bit too vague, and have been asking me to draw in pencil instead… so lately I've been (bedgrudingly) using pencil more in the clean-up stage.

—MGS takes place in modern-day America, and there's an element of realism in the character models. How do you approach that?

Shinkawa: One thing I've done before to convey that sense of reality is researching current American military uniforms as a reference. I like doing that kind of research. I also like clothing and fashion so I often refer to that world too. For Zone of Enders with its sci-fi universe, I had to design everything from scratch, but that was fun in its own right because I could do whatever I liked.

—When you're making characters for 3D games, do you need multiview orthographic drawings (three-view drawings)?

Shinkawa: I always sit next to the modeling devs, and we consult with each other as the work progresses: "this part is wrong, change this here." In terms of work specific to 3D games… in the Metal Gear Solid games, I also work on the lighting. It mainly involves putting light sources around the stages and seeing what looks good. Then, based on how that looks, I'll adjust the overall final coloring and shading of the characters. In a video game, you don't necessarily want everything to be perfectly visible—darkness and what you can't see also contributes to the gameplay. I think this is one aspect of game design where the methodology hasn't really been properly established yet, though.

—Metal Gear Solid is often described as having a strong cinematic aesthetic. Do you ever use explicit movie techniques for the lighting, or other things like that?

Shinkawa: I think the world of Metal Gear Solid 2 certainly approaches that. We have a scenario, and storyboards drawn by the CG director. For the lighting this time, the backend tool staff did a great job, and we can now experiment with lighting placement in the stages on the actual PS2 hardware. We can pause the screen, then go right in and put a light source down, and adjust its direction and color as well.

Video footage of The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2, an "interactive documentary" released for PS2 in Japan and NA in 2002. Among many other things, this software allowed users to view MGS2's character and environment models and adjust lighting, color and fog values in real time. Interestingly, it also contains a "Shinkawa Touch" version of Snake's model, which was an experimental attempt at directly recreating Shinkawa's illustrative style in 3D.

—In Metal Gear Solid you did the character designs, but in Zone of Enders you were responsible for the sci-fi mecha designs.

Shinkawa: It wasn't planned that way originally. They already had the designs of Nobuyoshi Nishimura, of "After War Gundam X" fame, and there was talk of outsourcing the work too. But in secret, I was really wanting to do it. So I brought them an old dojinshi I drew and said, "what do you think of something like this…?" and they loved it.

—So your mecha roots go all the way back to your dojinshi days.

Shinkawa: Yeah, I'd done mecha drawings before for dojinshis. The silhouettes of those mechas somewhat resemble the ones of ZOE. The cockpit is in the groin area, the toes have that tapered look, and the way their landing gear deploys, it's almost like they're skating when they land. So yeah, they share the same basic form as ZOE, for sure.

—The ZOE designs don't look like anything from Gundam though. In fact, they really don't resemble anything else. As robots go they're very unique.

Shinkawa: In my dojinshi days, I thought it would be cool to design robots based around a motif of egyptian hieroglyphs and wall art. The protagonist robot of ZOE, Jehuty, was modeled after Horus. It has a bird-like figure and face, and it has wings.

—It's almost half-beast. So it seems you found inspiration for your designs in mythology, and you touched them up with a modern feel. Are your mecha designs also done with brush pens?

Shinkawa: Yeah. I used brush pens for the mecha sketches. Then I had our new hire Noguchi-kun clean them up with pencil.

—How many robots did you draw?

Shinkawa: Just robots, I would say I drew over 100. But only 5 or 6 of those actually got used. They didn't ask me to design any of the weapons, but a lot of the mechs I drew had mounted weapons incorporated into their designs, and I basically left it up to the team whether to use them or not.

—Designing mechs means thinking about the way they're actually constructed. For example, the way joints bend, and the way it functions as a machine. That being the case, do you have to include detailed instructions with your designs?

Shinkawa: Yeah, I first explain the general feeling of how it's supposed to move to the animators, then have them produce some initial movement demos. If those look good, I leave the rest up to them. But it's really fun, you know, mecha design. I love it. And working on mecha non-stop like this has the merit of re-charging my enthusiasm for regular character drawings, so it all works out well.

Several mecha designs from Shinkawa's pre-Konami days, which bear obvious mechanical and thematic similarities to many of the mechs that appeared in ZOE. (upscaled from here and here)

—Young kids who can draw are usually pretty popular. Was it like that with you?

Shinkawa: Hehe, yeah, it is like that, isn't it? And it was for me too. In first and second grade I was very popular. I loved Captain Future then, including the anime version that aired on NHK. I was very popular for my drawings of Captain Future. Kids in my class would often ask me to draw things for them too. During class I didn't study or pay attention at all, I was just constantly sketching. I loved manga and fantasy. In middle school I read Shonen Jump, and I would draw fantasy-ish stuff while looking at Yoshitaka Amano's illustrations.

—Amano drew lots of illustrations for fantasy novels.

Shinkawa: I liked Yoshitaka Amano, Hayao Miyazaki, and Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. Yasuhiko drew his manga Arion using brush pens. Seeing that made me realize that you could draw stuff like this with brush pens, and that was when I started using them. All the Metal Gear Solid illustrations for the new game are also drawn again with brush pens.

—Fascinating, I didn't realize the roots of your brush pen style went back to Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. By the way, did you play video games back then?

Shinkawa: Not really, I was more into tabletop role-playing games like D&D. I used to draw my friend's character portraits while we played. None of my friends had a computer, and until I entered college all I owned was a PC Engine Supergrafx. I spent more time drawing manga and selling my work directly at doujinshi events. In college I was in a manga club.

—What kind of manga did you draw?

Shinkawa: We weren't one of those "anime parody" clubs, we made our own original creations… and that's probably why we never sold much at Comiket! Somewhere inside me I had the idea that it would be cool to be a mangaka professionally, but I never took the steps of bringing my work to a publisher.

—What mangaka do you like?

Shinkawa: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and Yoshitaka Amano, of course. Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira made a big impression on me too. Also the French artists Enki Bilal and Moebius. I guess I tend to prefer more "dramatic" works overall. I remember discovering Bilal in high school, when I was living in Okayama. It was a special edition of this magazine that featured Western comic artists. Reading through that magazine, I fell in love with his work.

—Was your manga club particularly interested in non-Japanese comics?

Shinkawa: No. There were only a few people in the club with those tastes. I quietly collected all that stuff on my own. The club was more into video games. When we got together everyone would immediately start gaming. Street Fighter II, Final Lap… we'd all go down to the game center and all they would do is play head-to-head games. There was one guy in the club, I wouldn't say he loved games so much as he lived games… this guy just played games morning to night nonstop, and as soon as he got home he'd fire up his X68000 and get right down to business. And there were several others like him in the club too.

—I imagine being in their orbit, you must have played a lot of games then too. Did you not own a computer yourself?

Shinkawa: No, I didn't like computers. Until I joined Konami I never used them at all. In college there were two Macintoshes available for use, but they were in the professor's room so I didn't have much chance to mess around with them. I used them once to edit some photos in photoshop, and that was like… whoa, this is amazing. (laughs)

—Of course, when you joined Konami, everyone must have been using computers.

Shinkawa: Yeah. But I didn't mess with them even then… I couldn't even type back then, you see. In 1994 they were just introducing the Macintosh. It took me about half a year before I was comfortable using them.

A glimpse at the variety of different styles present in Shinkawa's 1994 portfolio submission to Konami, as reprinted in Konami Magazine vol.2/June '97. (source)

—I don't think there are many people your age working as art directors in the game industry today.

Shinkawa: Well, I don't think my drawing skills are terribly good or anything… if I had to say, what matters more for an art director is the quality of your ideas. Whether it's robots or characters, the key point is how many interesting ideas you can infuse their designs with. I'm talking about design ideas that are tied into the game itself, that enrich the gameplay. The same applies to Zone of Enders: it's not about how awesome or cool one particular drawing is, it's whether, once that design is put into the game, it motivates the player and inspires them.

—Have you ever thought about doing the actual 3D modeling yourself as well?

Shinkawa: We have people to do that work here, so I don't really think it's necessary now. Plus, I think the people who work on textures for games and 3D modeling, their skills are going to become increasingly specialized.

—I see. Then you intend to keep focusing on design foremost. By the way, the brush pens are a major part of your style, but what do you like about them?

Shinkawa: They allow me to create the kind of lines I visualize in my head. You often see people say that when you draw manga you should use kabura pens. I find those too hard to use though. When I use brush pens, though, it all comes naturally. I don't have to worry as much about single lines, and I can draw in a more open, relaxed way.

—Just as a photograph burns a moment in time onto the printing paper, it seems that brush pens allow you to "imprint" your ideas very quickly. Is that short timeframe the key, perhaps?

Shinkawa: Well, I've heard before that there's a hard limit on how many hours in a day that a person can be focused. So I try to focus in a short, compact timeframe when I do my design work. When I focus like that my body temperature rises, and I feel hotter all over. And that's when I pick up my brush pen and go at it.

—Would you say you value the ideas over the level of finish/polish? Do you ever worry that those kinds of drawings will get released publicly as illustrations?

Shinkawa: If they do, I think they'll be interesting in their own right. Recently I did my first illustration for a book, but I kind of feel like maybe my talents are better suited to creating game characters after all. Creating characters that will move and act within the game world—that's my specialty.

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