Capcom’s long-serving Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono tells Will Freeman about shaping the latest in the series, and how it's connected to the world-dominating sport

The unlikely link between Street Fighter and football

Is it fair to say that your history with Street Fighter is both personal and professional? I understand you started as a fairly dedicated player, very early on.

I was introduced to Street Fighter with the very first game in the series. Next year is going to be the 30th anniversary of Street Fighter, so it was 1987.

This was long before competition in games had got to where it is today. Back then there was no such word as ‘eSports’; there was just this arcade game that came out called Street Fighter.

The first Street Fighter didn’t have the modern six-button set-up with weak, medium and strong kicks and punches. There was just one button for punch and one for kick and, depending on how hard you actually hit those buttons, the strength of the attack would change.

It was adapted for Street Fighter II into a different system, but it was quite interesting in that first Street Fighter. It felt like a very direct connection, to be hitting the buttons hard to punch the characters on-screen hard.

Street Fighter II came put a few years later and I was really blown away by the evolution of the game in just one iteration. It was such a better experience: so much deeper.

At the time, I was actually practicing kendo, and I almost started to think then of Street Fighter as a digital martial art more than a game. It was just like the real martial art I was practicing; you had to read your opponents’ moves and use the moves that you knew to beat them. That was just an incredible experience to me, and I really started to think it would be great to work at the company that made these games.

I joined Capcom fairly shortly after that, and I’ve been with them for 25 years now. Most of that time I’ve been working on Street Fighter, so you could say that more than half of my life has been really dedicated to Street Fighter in one way or another.

I’ve put a lot of ¥100 coins into those machines over those years, but thankfully I’m now in a position to try and get some of those ¥100 back from Capcom.

In earning back those yen, you’ve most recently been producing Street Fighter V. Was there an overall philosophy or mantra that guided your team’s work on the game?

The mantra was really ‘reset’. Street Fighter IV is still active today, and it’s been running for seven or eight years now; it’s great to see a game run so long, and it’s the longest-running Street Fighter ever.

The problem with that is that the level of play has got so high now it’s like everyone playing now is in the Premier League, and playing for Manchester United; new players can feel very intimidated. It’s almost like new players are getting left behind. If somebody started playing Street Fighter IV today – and there was no Street Fighter V – they might think that they’re never going to be a Messi or Ronaldo like these Premiership guys. It’s not easy to get started there anymore, like it was when it first came out.

Street Fighter V is a reset of the game so that anybody – whether they’re pro, amateur or beginner – can be standing on the same pitch. Anybody who can pick up a ball can play this game, to continue my football metaphor. 

I feel a connection between Street Fighter and football because you need a strategy for defense, and for attacking, and you need to be able to move between those two states.

How have you balanced that approach with satisfying devoted players who have been playing Street Fighter for years?

The accessibility is an important point. The problem was that with Street Fighter III we’d really gone down a narrow road and focused on the hardcore elements of the game, and we left more casual and beginner players behind.

The idea behind Street Fighter IV was to go back to basics and make a game everyone could handle.

That was something we achieved with Street Fighter IV when we launched it but such a high standard of play has developed over seven or eight years, there’s a very narrow point of entry for new players. It’s difficult to find something that pleases both ends of the skill spectrum without a reset.

What’s the difference between a Premier League player and a kid in a park with jumpers for goalposts? It’s not only about skill level, really. They are both playing the same game. Anybody who can kick a ball across a pitch is playing football. That feels satisfying and fun, but there is still space for very high skill levels. 

With Street Fighter V, one of the things we’ve done there is make the control input timings more forgiving. That’s an example of where – though we haven’t dumbed it down – we’ve avoided the entry hurdle being to do with the player’s literal physical ability in terms of pressing the buttons perfectly.

I wanted it to be the case that anybody who could pick up a stick could give it a go and produce cool-looking moves on the screen, and feel cool and feel good. That doesn’t mean there isn’t the depth and strategy the hardcore players want. Just because a less skilled player can put a good move together, a skilled player can still have the strategic mind and block that, leap over it, and do something else.

You’ve mentioned football more than might be expected in an interview about a fighting game. Do you see an influence over your work because of your love of football?

I feel a connection between Street Fighter and football because, while there’s 11 players on each team, it is one team versus one team, the same way Street Fighter is one person against another.

More than that, the team on the field is made up of forwards, midfielders and defenders. When you’re on the team you’re not playing against one other footballer; you’re playing against all those different types of player. There’s 11 people you have to read and understand, with different attacks, and you have to know how they work alone and as part of the team.

You need a strategy for defense, and for attacking, and you need to be able to move between those two states. We have a whole range of characters for players to learn and read.

The idea behind Street Fighter IV was to go back to basics and make a game everyone could handle.

Releasing first on arcade had previously been the norm for the core Street Fighter series, but the latest game debuted on console. Is there any way the spirit of the arcade experience lives on in the series?

The best of the arcade experience is the atmosphere, and even the smell of the sweat of the place. Whether you’re looking your rival in the eye, or jostling elbows, that’s the arcade spirit. Having a crowd watch you, getting people on your side, saying how great you are, and being a spectator yourself. All of that is key.

It’s important for us not to lose that history and legacy in fighting games, but we also have to face the reality of the fact that most people aren’t taking themselves to arcades anymore.

So how to capture those feelings with technology? The spectator experience can come through easy video sharing. We can use the PS4 and PC’s great back-end technology to connect people, even if you are in London and I am in Tokyo.

We can only do the best we can, and we have. But I’m not sure we’ve managed a digital smell of sweat. Not yet.

Article originally published in Develop: March 2016 issue.

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