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Yoshinori Ono Discusses The Reinvention Of Street Fighter

by Brian Shea on Dec 08, 2015 at 02:30 PM

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Few developers have a history with a series like Yoshinori Ono. A fan of the series from the first time he played it, Ono joined Capcom to work on the sound of the Street Fighter games in the late '90s. Nearly 20 years later, he plays a major role in deciding the direction of each new game in the biggest fighting game franchise in the industry.

I recently sat down with Ono to discuss his career with the Street Fighter franchise and the decisions that have shaped Street Fighter V.

What was the game that made you fall in love with Street Fighter?
Really, I fell in love with and was super excited with Street Fighter I. I started playing that game before I even joined the company. I was in the arcade just banging the buttons super hard. It was just this super thrill like, "What is this game? What is this sense of excitement? What is this stimulus that I’m getting? This is really something special." That’s when I actually came and joined the company. I brought that level of excitement! I had this love for the title, but when I joined the company, it was actually like, "Wow, I feel extremely honored to actually be a part of Street Fighter. This is amazing!" With that feeling – that level of excitement, I felt that I wanted to continue to work on this title for the rest of my life. And here I am after 20 years! 

I came in working on sound. At the time people were working on the music, designers, producers… people working on different things were mixing in the same room. We even had Nishitani-san, the director of Street Fighter II, and a really famous artist Akira Yasuda – ‘Akiman’ is his pen name – and we were all sitting there and working together, and I had the opportunity to sit down and see how they approached the game and how they approached actually creating this game and developing the game. I was really blessed to be able to be in that kind of an environment. That’s what really got my juices going and really fueled my passion. I feel kind of bad for some of the new people because at the time we were a really small team and we were really tight-knit, so I was able to interact with these people on a really high level. We probably had something like a 30-man team working back then, but now it’s like 100 people, so I don’t really have the opportunity that the producers had back then to work with the younger crowd because we’re just so separated. Now it just feels like I’m just getting a ton of reports from other people.

For me, it was Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 3 that pulled me into the series. I poured so many hours into those games.
Actually, looking at Alpha 3, it’s kind of similar to Street Fighter IV today where there’s lots of characters. It didn’t have 44 characters like we do today, but it did have a ton of characters. At the time, that was something that we had never done before. Having been involved with development, I have a lot of painful memories of working on that title, but looking back on it that title did something that was really totally new and never seen before. It’s really quite amazing.

Before we talk about Street Fighter V, I wanted to get into your reinvention of the series through Street Fighter IV. What did you want to accomplish with Street Fighter IV and how did you push the team to achieve those goals?
I worked with the Street Fighter brand for quite some time before working on Street Fighter IV. Looking at Street Fighter III, it’s very well-known that it’s a master class title, it’s a masterpiece in and of itself, but the game got to a point where it was so high level that only masters could really play each other. You had to be an expert to be able to even have a chance at playing that game after a certain point. At the time it was kind of this interesting relationship between the development team and the actual players. 

It was almost like there was a ‘versus’ situation happening between the devs and the players because it was like, "How can I make a game where these people can’t possibly be able to actually play properly? How do I make it harder for these guys that are already at a very high level? How do I make the game even harder for them to play?" It kept getting to that point, and it was just like this crazy thing where I’m trying to make a game that’s too hard for anyone to play. I looked at that and I went, "Okay, this is no good. We can’t do that. This is kind of a problem."

The reason that I felt that way was because games are supposed to be something that you enjoy and have fun between lots and lots of people. That’s a very basic thing. That’s what a game is supposed to be. So when they said Street Fighter III is done and that the Street Fighter brand was done because that was the absolute highest level, that did not sit well with me because games are supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be played by a lot of people. I wanted to give that feeling where you come back and it’s like you’re playing Street Fighter II on the SNES, so when I came on-board and I talked to the team and I said that we’re making Street Fighter IV, everyone on the dev team was giving me all these proposals that were trying to go beyond Street Fighter III again! It was like, "Oh no, guys. Don’t do that please! Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to use today’s technology and make Street Fighter II."

We ended up going in that direction, and it really payed off because we were able to bring back a lot of the old timers that were playing Street Fighter II who remembered the game and thought it was an awesome game. At the same time, we also started at a more basic level in the game, and that ended up inviting a lot of new players. Because of that title, we very successfully started with a pretty sizable community.

On the next page, we talk about how Ono's vision for Street Fighter IV influenced Street Fighter V.

You had obvious concerns about going too high-level in Street Fighter IV, so were you concerned that all of the new mechanics in Street Fighter V would push things in that direction?
Talking about Street Fighter IV and the concept for that was to really go back to the original and go back to the starting point. That’s how it all started from there, but over time, the game has versioned up and its community has gotten more advanced and people have gotten really good at playing the game. If someone who brought you to the game suddenly went to the store and bought a copy of Ultra Street Fighter IV, it’s not like they could play it for a day and suddenly be at the level where they could make it to Capcom Cup the next day. The hurdle has gotten so high.

When we talked about making Street Fighter V, we wanted to make sure we lowered the bar for entry as much as humanly possible. One way we did that is to take care of it on the system level. What we wanted to do was eliminate the gap between really, really strong players and new players as much as possible. We wanted to make it so that almost everything you learned in the previous title got thrown out the window – at least as much as humanly possible. In doing so, we ended up narrowing the gap between really strong players and new players. It’s a very small gap now.

The new system is the V-System where you’ve got V-Trigger, V-Reversal, V-Skill and that’s something that’s totally new and has never been in a Street Fighter game. So even if someone has been playing Street Fighter for a very long time, they have to take the time to learn how to use it in the game. It’s exactly the same for someone that’s new. That’s really the goal to lower that gap and we do it through this new V-System.

If you think about it, the way that you do a V-Skill is the same way you did a focus attack in Street Fighter IV. Even in that title, people were pretty comfortable with that being easy enough for them to actually do and have fun with. I think we’re in a pretty good place in terms of being able to do that and it should be easy enough because it’s pretty much the same, but what we will see is that people will probably start sitting down and learning how to utilize the V-Trigger and digging into the V-Systems. That’s what we’re really going to start seeing a gap in terms of how quickly people will actually grow faster and mature in their ability as a player. 

But in the very beginning, I’m making it so that it’s equal play. Everyone’s starting on the same game board. It’s a clean board, and everyone’s starting. That’s really the idea behind starting on one point on a very basic level. What I’m going to have fun watching is kind of seeing over the next couple months is how people approach the game and see how quickly some people start differentiating themselves as a player.

When you introduce a new character or change an existing one that a lot of players love, is there a fear that it will upset those who love the character before, or that the new character won’t be a good fit for the cast?
That is an absolute fear that we have. That’s why we have to be super-duper careful about how we approach making Street Fighter. We talked earlier about the positioning of Street Fighter V and creating a new rulebook for this game, we really did look into how we wanted to handle the new characters. We have characters coming back like Chun-Li, Ken, and even Cammy changed some, but we made sure to have at least one thing – I told the team I want one thing that they change on purpose for these characters. I wanted them to go out of their way to make sure they did that.

But at the same time, the way that the character attacks, the way that you play with them, the DNA of the character – I made sure to tell them to keep that 100% intact. Even though the characters may have changed, they still have stuff that you’re used to. If you look at Ken, we made sure to keep his attacks and made sure that he has a playstyle where he’s constantly attacking and rushing down the opponent. Or with Chun-Li where she has a lot of kick moves, but also capable in air-to-air combat sort of situations. It’s how we’re resetting and how we’re having people approach it a little bit differently like, "Okay, they changed it a little bit, but hey their playstyle is different."

In terms of new characters and how we’re approaching them, we could be scared of new and different things, but at Street Fighter we have kind of a tradition of having really outlandish characters suddenly appear. We had Blanka in Street Fighter II and that’s pretty outlandish! [Laughs] 

In Street Fighter IV we had a lot of new characters where you’d never expect a character like that to be in Street Fighter. In Street Fighter V, you have characters that are kind of like baseline characters in Street Fighter like C. Viper, you know, a very technical character, and then this time you’ve got Rashid who is a very baseline character. No one’s kind of batting an eye at them, but with F.A.N.G. I can see people kind of going, "What’s going on with this guy? He’s got poison? What? This guy is strange!"

That’s actually something that we go for because those are most of the characters that really end up sticking with people and they end up falling in love with. In the long run, those are the characters that we end up seeing having a lot of longevity and more of a chance of sticking around in the series. With F.A.N.G. he’s got this poison and he’s really crazy, but it’s more about him having this sense of bitterness in the taste of the character contributes to his longevity.

Was the decision to release all DLC characters as earnable within gameplay influenced more by trends or the currently available technology?
In terms of coming to that decision, the ability to put characters out and this service model approach, we really could have done that with the technology during the PS3’s time. What I can say when talking about the decision making that was done there was that we’re trying to match users’ lifestyles and where the culture is heading. That’s what we’re really trying to accomplish with the service model approach. When talking about technology in terms of how that contributed to Street Fighter V, graphics is sort of obvious thing. The graphics are going to look better, but really with Street Fighter V with resetting this as a Street Fighter title, we really wanted to bring out the individuality of the characters and the uniqueness of the characters. 

A lot of that is thanks to the technology of this generation. We looked at the characters’ animations like, "How do we make this more unique to Ryu?" You really feel the individuality of the character. Then with F.A.N.G., he’s got a lot of unique movements and a lot of really interesting things. Then you look at Ultra Street Fighter IV and you have focus attacks and other things and that was a very common system that was for every single character. Anybody had access to it. Now, with the V-System, everyone has these unique attacks and everyone’s V-Trigger, V-Skills, V-Reversals are different. That takes up a lot of memory and that takes up a lot of processing power. So really, you could say that it’s thanks to the next-gen technology that the V-System even exists because of that processing power.

Street Fighter V releases on PlayStation 4 and PC on February 16, 2016. This interview was originally published on December 7, 2015.