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Saving Street Fighter: Yoshi Ono on Building Street Fighter IV

Gamasutra quizzes Street Fighter IV supremo Yoshi Ono on the details behind the fighting game's return -- from 'hardcore vs. casual' to animation skipping, complex tactics and beyond.

Though it has hit arcades in Asia and elsewhere to plenty of acclaim, there was a time when the idea of Street Fighter IV seemed an incredibly dicey proposition.

Capcom had long neglected the series, which had its last arcade installment (Street Fighter III: Third Strike) in 1999. In characteristic Capcom fashion, spinoffs and remakes followed, but the true and pure Street Fighter series was all but dormant.

Street Fighter III, in all of its forms, is an excellent game. It is also an incredibly difficult game to truly understand and play well, and in this sense it presaged the dormancy of the fighting game genre. Capcom's last original, internally-developed game in the fighting genre, 2004's Capcom Fighting Evolution, was weak and piecemeal.

Ironically, the man responsible for that game -- general manager of the online game development department and R&D management group of Capcom -- is also one who was deeply involved with Street Fighter III.

But he is also the producer of Street Fighter IV, a game which will likely bring the series as close to its early-'90s heyday as it can realistically get, and is due to hit Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC following its arcade run.

Here, Ono discusses the mental shift required to go from one of the most complicated and difficult games in the series to one which is welcoming and appealing to the legions of fans who potentially have not touched a Street Fighter game in 15 years.

In addition, he examines how bringing complicated play mechanics into an accessible game makes it a more compelling experience for all audiences, and how revamping the game based on user feedback is essential to developing its look and feel.

Why do you think that Street Fighter III was so ahead of its time? It feels like it's starting to really get appreciated in the last two or three years.

YO: Definitely at the time we didn't think it was ahead of its time. I think at the time, it was the right game to come out, from our perspective. The way that fighting games were at the time, their popularity, and the need for something more technical and complex... we felt that it suited the air at the time.

The reason it seems to be ahead of its time and the reason why it's gaining more popularity now is probably because it's taken people that long to get really good at it, and they appreciate the depth that the game has to offer.

I think that the reason I would consider it ahead of its time is that it seems when it was released, there was only a very small group of people that could actually play it effectively, because it was more technical and hardcore, so it appeals to the top of the proverbial pyramid.


Capcom's Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike

I've played a little Street Fighter IV, and it's hard for me to compare it to another game, actually. I would almost say that the closest might be Real Bout Fatal Fury 2, because you can do the fake out moves, and it goes a bit 2.5D at times. Is there a game that you would compare it to? It doesn't play like Street Fighter II or III. It plays like its own kind of thing.

YO: I think the closest game I can compare it to, would be Super Street Fighter II Turbo. That being said, it is a slower game. It's been tuned to play more slowly. But it's probably the closest to that...I think the essence is closest to that. 

I think there is definitely an influence from pretty much every fighting game that came out in the '90s, and all of the SNK games, the Virtua Fighter series, and all that. There was a time when everyone was making fighting games, Capcom, SNK, Sega...

Basically what you're seeing is a result of the influence of the best parts of those games from back then, so it's not your imagination if it feels a bit like Fatal Fury here and there, or even some other game. We were very strongly influenced by the history of the fighting game heyday.


You were talking about the era when you could actually draw from SNK and Sega, and all these companies were still actually making fighting games. Now that there are very few companies making fighting games, has it been more difficult to compare yourselves,? Do you feel like there's not quite the competitive development community there that used to be there?

YO: It's definitely a different landscape now than it was in the '90s and '80s. It's kind of a bit lonely making a fighting game now, because not a lot of people are doing it.

But I think the responsibility for that rests with us and all the people who were making fighting games back then, because what happened was that gradually, the games became more and more focused on the hardcore audience, and we really shut the casual players out. 

If you think about chess for instance, a kid and a grandfather can play the same game, with the same ruleset, and understand what's going on.  I think through our competitive spirit back then we were always out to out-complicate each other, and make our systems deeper and deeper. It was ok then because there was a wide player base who understood how to play these games, but that's not true anymore.

What we're trying to do with Street Fighter IV is bring them back in. There's not a whole lot of other fighting games out there to compare it to, but hopefully, if we play our cards right and get people back in to the genre, we can blossom the genre itself again and spread things out and get it back to the way it was.

I think that chess is a really good analogy for the fighting game genre, because all sorts of moves balance other moves, and it can be very methodical. How much tuning do you do with the new characters, and balancing the new moves against the old moves and that sort of thing?

YO: We spent a lot of time on this. The balancing process for the new characters really was something that went over the course of an entire year, adding special moves, taking special moves away, adjusting strengths and weaknesses.

The chess analogy is very good, because if you look at Resident Evil and the other games we put out, they have a lot more in common with movies. They're big entertainment spectacles, whereas a fighting game is more like a chess game, or a tool.

We're giving users the tool they need to have fun together, but it's less of the entertainment spectacle thing. Balance is absolutely very important, so we took a whole year to get the characters where they are now.

Speaking of tuning, the graphics were altered slightly from location test to location test. What did you base the changes on -- fan reactions?

YO: Absolutely. The visual changes you see throughout the location test versions to the final version, a lot of that is basically based on user opinions and feedback from them. Not just in the gameplay balance itself, but also visually.

Once again, we're not giving them the entertainment spectacle of an ordinary game, but more of a toolset. If you give someone a board game or something and one of the pieces is ugly, they're not going to want to move that piece.

So it's really important to listen to the users' opinions, because it's going to be a tool that they're going to use freely to play the way that they want. We have to make sure that the visuals we give them are in line with their expectations, so we did listen to what they had to say about the visuals.

Rufus in Capcom's Street Fighter IV

[New fighter] Rufus is a very odd character, because he plays completely counter to his visual. He's very fast, but he's got a big rippling stomach and stuff. What was the sensibility behind the visual design of that character?

YO: That disconnect you feel between those visuals and the way he moves was a very deliberate part of his design. It was the basis of his design. There's been a lot of fat characters in fighting games, but until now, they always move slowly, have individual punches and kicks that are very powerful, and they don't move quickly.

So basically, the idea behind Rufus was to take a character that looks visually familiar, but plays in a very different way than you would expect. It has a bit of a Street Fighter essence in it, too.

If you look at all of the characters until now, they all do crazy, unexpected things. They stretch their limbs or they use electricity, and that sort of thing. So we think that Rufus really fits in to the Street Fighter aesthetic pretty well, in that sense.

He reminds me of the days when fighting games would base characters on popular martial artists or things like that. So the inspiration might be Sammo Hung or someone like that.


A thing that I found to be a problem with people trying to make 2D fighting games in 3D in the past is that there's too much focus on finishing animation -- like, making sure that the entire punch goes all the way through and comes back, instead of just snapping back so that it's more functional than visual. Where was the balance for you?

YO: That's a really good question. Like you said, we couldn't possibly do it the way we did it in Street Fighter III. What happened with Street Fighter IV was at the beginning, the way that characters get punched or kicked or the return motion of their fist or foot... we left that at 60 frames, moving really smoothly, and left all of the animation in there.

So a fist would go forward in five frames, then return in five frames. Even though the timing was the same as the ordinary 2D Street Fighter, it looked really weird, and it kind of gave the visual impression that it was moving too slowly or too smooth.

So basically, the adjustment that we've made is that when you first throw a punch, you have that 60 frames per second polygon smoothness, but when it pulls back, we've deliberately skipping large amounts of frames, as opposed to a smooth movement. .

I think one of the first games that actually did it somewhat effectively and made it feel like a 2D game was Arc System Works' Battle Fantasia, even though it's a very recent game. Have you played that one?

YO: Yeah, I'm actually very familiar with it. I even went to the location tests of that game, back when it was very early in development.

What do you think?

YO: The cool thing about Battle Fantasia is because the characters are done in a super-deformed art style, it doesn't feel weird that the animation works the way that it does. It works really well, and looks really good with that art style.

Our fear was that with Street Fighter IV, because our characters are taller and more human-proportioned that it might look funky, with frame skipping, and a look that's more choppy.

What we learned through development was that no, it's not going to look weird. It's actually going to feel really good. Battle Fantasia was part of what made us realize that, I think.

I really like the El Fuerte character. Although he's actually a wrestling character, the way that he moves around the screen and the arc of his jumps and stuff really reminds me of Kyo's fighting style [from SNK's King Of Fighters series], which is somewhat counter to the Shotokan [i.e. Ken and Ryu in Capcom's Street Fighter series]. Was that anywhere in your design decision for him? It feels like the arc to some of his specials is just perfect to get over the attacks of the Shotos, and over fireballs or middle kicks at the peak.

YO: The fact that you even noticed that in playing it for such a short time is really impressive. I guess you're really a fighting player. I didn't expect questions like this until much later after the game came out.

But the fact that we'd done it at 16:9 this time made it so that we had to adjust the jump arcs even moreso than you would normally have to. It would be troublesome if all the jumps were too strong.

Characters that are specifically suited for jumping -- El Fuerte, and Crimson Viper is kind of a jump-centered character -- we really spent a lot of time adjusting their arcs to decide, "Should they be able to jump over Sonic Booms? Should they be able to jump over a Hadoken? What angle do you need to launch them at in order for that to happen?" So yeah, thanks for noticing that. Some characters are very specifically designed to counter those kind of projectile attacks.

That's one of the reasons why I really liked the Capcom vs. SNK series, because you actually have those Kyo- and SNK-style characters versus the Shotokan characters, and you can actually compare them. I'm glad that it's happening again within a Capcom game.

YO: You're making me really happy, because even at all the other interviews I've done at GDC and other events, no one's actually gotten that deep into the fighting game essence. I'm happy to hear you mentioning stuff like this.


What is most important when you're designing a counter system? This is a different kind of counter system than has been used in the past, and it feels like there's much more flow to it. Obviously, with III, you had to press the opposite direction you're used to pressing, so that was actually a big barrier for some people. This is much more fluid and can go into or out of combos, potentially. How did you decide for this one what was most important?

YO: The parry system in III was really fun and everything, but the problem was because you only have six frames to enter the command, it was really great for expert players, but really, really hard for the less serious players to get into.

So our main goal with this game was that we had two things that we were aiming for: we wanted to make it easy for people to enter and perform the move -- that's why it's only a two-button input -- and it had to be obvious to the player that they did something.

We didn't want them to do it by accident and wonder what happened. They had to see really visually right away, "Hey, I just did something."

You push two buttons and you have a brief period of invincibility where you can do a parry-like thing -- an aggressive, offensive attack. That's great, because if you're trying to make a chess-like game, it's got to be something that's easy for people to do and to utilize.

At the same time, we wanted to make the system deep enough for really hardcore players to get into as well, so that's why the system itself is quite deep.

If you want to, you can use it as a feint, dash out of it, and then move into other moves, and things like that. People who are more beginners to the genre can use it very simply, and more hardcore players can use it in an entirely different way. We wanted to have something for them as well.

Yeah, it seems to have a lot of potential as a launching pad for other techniques. I haven't gotten to play it that much, but is there a limit to how many times it can happen back and forth? I don't know if there's a defense gauge or anything like that. Or can it go infinitely between skilled players?

YO: You actually can't keep trading it back and forth infinitely, the reason being that there's three levels of it. If you just tap it, for example, you just kind of do a punch. If you hold it down a little longer, the character will flash for a second and you can do a stronger attack.

If you hold it down long enough, you'll automatically attack without you doing anything, and that's actually unblockable, even if the other guy's also trying to do the focus attack where he's invincible for a second

That invincibility is overwritten by the unblockable attack, so eventually, someone is going to do the unblockable one and knock someone out of the pattern.

So when you get high-level players trying to do this together, it's going to be a bunch of like, "Do I let go? Do I try to hang on to do the unblockable?" But you can't just keep doing it back and forth.

That's good, because the worry is that eventually with fighting games, exploits come out. I don't know if you have any sense of what those might be, or if you've totally gotten on top of all of them. Because like in Street Fighter II HD, there was the problem of Ken being able to do too many Shoryukens at first, and in CVS2, people would constantly roll and throw. Do you think that you've gotten them all out of the way so far?

YO: Well, we put a hell of a lot of time into trying to eliminate things like that at Capcom. In all honesty, it's kind of a bad habit, where we usually end up with some kind of exploit in most of our fighting games, to a degree.

We did test the crap out of it to make sure that it didn't happen, but the truth is, the arcade game just came out in Japan and Asia last week [as of the time of this interview]. They haven't found anything yet. If they do, of course we'll fix it for the home version, but right now, we're just waiting with bated breath to see if anybody does find something.


It's clear that you're trying to make the game more accessible to more people. How do you make the fighting genre itself more accessible to people? And so that they feel more confident about, "Okay, maybe I can actually play this."

YO: What we've done this time is that we kind of hit the rewind button and went back to Street Fighter II, because I think we're used to that. That lowers the hurdle for people who are familiar with Street Fighter II, but it doesn't necessarily bring new people.

We haven't done anything terribly special. What we really need to do if we want brand new people playing fighting games, is we need to simplify things to the point where they no longer have to rely on looking at the manual.

Perhaps less buttons is the key, or perhaps less special moves is the key.

Really, we just need to focus on the idea of reading your opponents' moves. People would understand the fun of that, and it doesn't require a lot of special moves. It needs some kind of general simplification to get more people into it at this point.

This didn't really open the market, but with SNK's Neo Geo Pocket versions of games like King of Fighters R2, there were only two buttons, but it was based on length of press. But I wonder if that's actually more hardcore, because you have to internalize the timing.

YO: I completely agree. When it comes down to asking people to memorize timing like that, we do kind of get into hardcore territory, and that's what happened with the focus system in Street Fighter IV.

We deliberately made it so that the hardcore people can worry about the timing and memorize exactly how long you need to hold it down for the second or third level attack, whereas the ordinary folks out there can just hit it and let go -- and they've already done something, and they don't have to worry about exactly how long they hold the buttons down.

When it comes to timing and things like that, even if you do reduce the number of buttons, timing actually makes it more difficult and hardcore I think, ultimately.

When I play fighting games, I really like to play them by feeling, because that's how you really understand how a fighting game is really going to work. I prefer not to look at the manual, but understand basic tools like, "This is how a special works. This is how supers work," and then move from that. Street Fighter IV seems like the kind of game you can play by feeling, using those sorts of tools. What sort of feeling are you trying to go for with this? It's a very subtle thing, but...

YO: That's a really good philosophical question. Basically, with Street Fighter IV, we're going for real simplicity. It's the idea of, "Welcome back to Street Fighter." We didn't want to think too deeply philosophically about what kind of feeling we wanted to get across. With III we sure did.

With III, we looked at Street Fighter II and said, "This is what's wrong with this game. Let's fix it." We looked at the SNK games. "This is what they're doing wrong. Let's fix that. Let's make it so that you have to do this in this specific way, or you're not going to be able to win."

We did that with III, but with IV, we deliberately went for a simplified kind of way where we avoided that philosophical thing and went for as simple and appealing as possible.

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