Iwata: So, Famicom systems were nothing compared to PCs?

Ono: I think I had my pride as a PC user. But when I saw a few of games of NAMCO at the time, I really wondered how they made certain things. I couldn’t believe the kinds of images and animations they were able to achieve, using the given specs.

Iwata: You were able to understand that because you were programming the PC. The Famicom system is like a toy for the family, but the images were smoother than on the PC and it reproduced arcade games very well. And that made you wonder how they did it?

Ono: That’s right. I was so impressed that I started to play the Famicom system. So, I started playing it a lot later than everyone else. Since everyone was playing Donkey Kong or Mario Bros., I started gathering those game cassettes. But my interests weren’t in regard to the games but the technology. At the time, Sharp Corp. had a computer called the X1, which was very good at managing VRAM. I tried using it to recreate that by disassembling software sold at the time.

Ono: That’s right. I think that “exponentiality” is a great keyword. Some consumers might be satisfied at the number of notable features at the top of a catalog, but whether or not it will really make them like it is an entirely a different matter.

Iwata: Some people can be happy when a game has a lot of content to offer. However, some people are the opposite. If you can play a game for three minutes and honestly say, “It’s amazing,” I believe everyone will feel the same about it. Those kinds of things are what other consumers talk to each other about.

Ono: When I talk about it, I always show a catalog that listed each of the proposals to the staff and ask them, “What jumps out at you the most?” and try to rank each of the features. Then, I’d ask things like, “What images come to mind with content outside of this catalog?” or “How much can you do?” The people who can supplement that catalog are the people who have very sharp wit. They’re the kind of people who can find something new on their own.

Iwata: Meaning, when you give someone a job to do, some of them will be able to develop it independently, while the others will always ask what to do each step of the way.

Ono: Yes. Objectively speaking, that’s something content creators have to pay attention.

Iwata: But everyone has different tastes in what kind of work interests them. Like with the disassembly, it’s obviously hard menial work, but you can have lots of fun doing it.

Ono: You’re exactly right. But it really was fun at the time. I snuck an assembler sheet into my school bag and opened it up during the lunch break. I’d try out what I had come up with at home, and I’d do the same at the electronics store, too. Then again, I think I was the only kid who would do something like that. (laughs) I sort of feel sorry for the staff members who simply don’t have the opportunity to do that today.

Iwata: The environment is a lot better, allowing everyone to test many things right away. Back then, you’d have to prepare it on paper or in your head for a very long time before you were able to input it in the machine. On the other hand, because the learning environment wasn’t very good back then, we had to do trial and error by hand. It may seem inefficient, but I think it taught us something very valuable.

Ono: As suppliers of creativity, we have various paths we can take to the goals we should strive to achieve. There are many ways to approach this problem, but that difference in approach also leads to getting through to each and every consumer.

Iwata: There are countless paths to the goal. And with those countless paths, finding the best way to it through knowing your strengths and weaknesses always yields the best results. That’s why our experience in writhing on the ground has also allowed us to find multiple methods in solving problems. That’s just my take on it.

Ono: I agree.

Iwata: When I was still a student, I wasn’t good at English. But the thing that turned things around was when I went to America for a business trip for HAL Laboratory.17 A title that was being made by an overseas developer had to be finished within the year. I was simply told, “Do something about it!” However, I had no idea when I’d be able to go home. (laughs) The situation was such that I had to talk in English or the problem won’t be solved. After experiencing that, I started to learn little by little.

Ono: Yes. That’s why everyone that makes games, not just Capcom, should always look out into the world. As long as I’m a game creator of Japan, I want other Japanese people to be successful, too. I want them to become warriors who can be effective around the world. That’s why they have to take the opportunity to research what’s going on overseas. If they don’t have that opportunity, then they should try to create that opportunity. That’s how they can start to change themselves. You can’t just bunch all of Europe into one entity. You have to think about how each and every place is different, and you should always maintain that mindset. Only then will you begin to see how things are structured on a more profound level. After that, you may be able to see how you can manage the differences between men, women, children, adults and the elderly. And not only game development, you may be able to manage things you couldn’t see from a standpoint of promotion or sales. I want everyone to see and understand those structural differences.

Iwata: If you put it another way, if your product can sell a million copies there could be a million different reasons it was purchased. But we tend to only think about the one reason everyone bought it. The more we try to understand the various kinds of consumers we have, the more opportunities we can get through the differences in cultures and values. It’s either that, or we can find an angle like “this is common among everyone” and have every single person say some particular thing is fun.

Ono: You’re right about that. We have to prepare multiple entrances and pathways for the consumers. On the other hand, we should never construct the entries simply relying on our unfounded imaginations. I’d like to create things by always thinking such details as, “The top is structured like this, and this country is shaped like this, so…” As a creator, I want such details to be noticed.

Iwata: So, after that embarrassing experience, more of your values solidified with what you have today.

Ono: Yes. Seriously. I guess it was embarrassing because I was so confident in it. I reflected on my mistake and tried to understand them better. The result of that is Dead Rising. I took the Shadow of Rome team and analyzed America. We saw what they liked and what interests they could be absorbed in. After putting together everything of that sort, I think we managed to get a good result. But only after that experience, that embarrassment, and that huge failure was I able to see it.

Iwata: I see.

Ono: That’s why when we were going to revamp Street Fighter one more time, I was determined not to make the same mistake. I looked back and tried to remember what I was impressed back in the ’90s. I had to remember how everyone felt at the time. And that’s how I created the “entrances” one by one.

Iwata: It’s been nine years since the last installment of the series. How exactly did this Street Fighter revival begin?

Ono: When I was being interviewed overseas for another title, the last question almost everyone asked me was, “When will we get a sequel for Street Fighter?” People asked me that a lot. The reason I thought the series was over after Street Fighter III was because of the same mistake I had made with Shadow of Rome. I had only considered the same consumers who were diehard fans of the series.

Iwata: But those were your most passionate fans.

Ono: Right. They were also the loudest people who made their voices heard. I really understood how they felt, so I thought their voices were everything. But I didn’t realize there were other people to whom the game could not resonate with at all until just about four or five years ago.

Iwata: If it weren’t for that big failure you mentioned, you probably still wouldn’t have realized it by now.

Ono: Yes. I realized there were people who were waiting for it. I decided to seriously revamp the franchise from the bottom up.

Iwata: All game series have a sort of tradition or custom that they always follow. As the series goes on, it can become more refined and more advanced. But at the same time, something is lost in the process. In that sense, what do you think Street Fighter lost?

Ono: That would be the narrowing of the “paths.” We had locked the doors of the “entrance” without even knowing it.

Iwata: Was it really something you did unknowingly?

Ono: I would say so. By designating the “entrance,” it ended up becoming a game that only a select few could enter.

Iwata: But for the people who could enter, they must have been proud of it and loved the space there.

Ono: Yes. It was a kind of pleasure you feel by being a part of an exclusive group. We game creators also became drunk with that feeling. Thankfully, even 14 years after its release, there still are world tournaments held for Street Fighter III!

Iwata: That’s amazing! Those must be the people who have completely mastered it.

Ono: Yes. That’s why, when we created Street Fighter IV, we knew we shouldn’t make something that only Master Habu could play. There’s already a Ryuo Tournament out there, so there’s no need for us to do the same.

Iwata: In other words, we developers should be widening the paths and allowing other people to see how fun it is to be among the “chosen ones.” So, you’re saying the Street Fighter revival project started off with you thinking about how that could be achieved.

Ono: Yes. To tell you the truth, when we started making Street Fighter IV, some suggested to make it even more over-the-top.

Iwata: Just reading the comments from our hardcore fans online will naturally make you gravitate toward that.

Ono: Yes. Since we can’t equate the loudest person as everyone’s opinion, we went back to the roots of the people who played Street Fighter and tried to analyze it. When making games, I always tell my staff to never forget going “back to the roots” and the “class reunion.” Going back to the roots means to look carefully into the very beginning where it all started. The class reunion means to think how we could let the former players who played the original to feel like joining it again. For example, when you are going to a middle school reunion, men usually think about the girl they liked right away. (laughs)

Iwata: (laughs)

Ono: They’d have these thoughts about how she’s doing as they head on over to the reunion. But when they get there, everyone has changed and he doesn’t know which one she is. Something like that. (laughs) If it were me, I’d try to imagine lots of things about that girl on the way to the reunion.

Iwata: You mean like expanding your fantasies. (laughs)

Ono: Yes. It’s the same as that. The people who played Street Fighter until their fingers hurt back in the ’90s carry a sort of image in their hearts. We can’t reuse what used at the time in the same way, but we should make a happy class reunion that every attendee can imagine. That’s the kind of Street Fighter IV I wanted to make.

Iwata: So, instead of just re-experiencing what they did in the past, you wanted to extract just the good things and good images.

Ono: Yes. We have tried to make it so people will say, “It hasn’t changed,” but in a good way. And we have tried to create a broad entrance that would “go back to the roots” by analyzing how so many people in the past wanted to play the original in the past. I believe that trying to develop these parts was what sparked the revival.

Iwata: Wasn’t getting the rest of the company to understand and believe in it very hard work?

Ono: Yes, it was. Five years ago, I was really crying my heart out. It took me two years to convince the company! They kept telling me, “That’s outdated.”

Iwata: And was it when the consumers tried out the game that you could feel the solid response for the first time?

Ono: Actually, it was when we announced it. Around October 2007, we released a teaser stating that it was going to be revived. We received a very powerful reaction from that. After seeing that, I knew the direction we were taking wasn’t wrong after all. When we first put the arcade version at the Game Show on exhibit, the moment everyone played it they all said, “I’m so glad it hasn’t changed!”

Iwata: Their impressions of it haven’t changed at all, but in fact you’ve changed the details quite a lot.

Ono: People who were casual players felt, “It hasn’t changed.” On the other hand, people who played it religiously felt, “it has come a long way to be able to do these this!” I felt that providing both kinds of features was the way to widen the point of entry. At that time, I told myself, “I wasn’t wrong after all!” It brought me away from my walk of shame.

Iwata: After that, it was ported over to home consoles. Since it was popular already, was it smooth sailing from then on?

Ono: Yes. Right when we released the arcade version, even people from our overseas subsidiaries said, “Let’s do it.” I felt like everything was going in our favor for this title.

Iwata: The population of fighting games had decreased significantly at one point, but it really surprised me to see how that title sold on an HD system. I kept wondering how you did it. I feel much better, now that the mystery has been solved. (laughs)

Ono: The one thing I want to spend time creating with the Nintendo 3DS system is the community. We released two versions on home consoles, and the one thing I’ve continued to say is, “Always continue to make a community for the people here, here and here.” I don’t mean just sales and advertisements. In order to have people actually enjoy the act of “fighting,” they can start off by playing each other face to face. There, they’ll realize something and say, “Yeah, I remember this feeling.” If we manage to get that far, the people around that player will start getting into it, too.

Iwata: Yes. It’s like when a close friend comes up to you and says, “Let’s play it.” That person is bound to pick up the controller.

Ono: Yes. I am starting to realize that taking care of that kind of community is very important, no matter what game it is. So, how can we develop that kind of community? On the HD home consoles, it’s to make it so that once the player inserts the disc he or she will never leave the community. That’s why, when they return to the menu screen, they can see what’s happening in the entire community just through the game console.

Iwata: So, that’s why you implemented Channel Live (Spectator Mode) and Voice Chat features for the players who aren’t actually fighting.

Ono: Yes. With an improved network functionality that the Nintendo 3DS system has, registering friend codes from Nintendo will allow you to form a community no matter how far apart you are. Let’s say Capcom wanted to suggest doing something in America. If there are communities all over the place, everyone may come together. They may also bring along their friends, girlfriends and even their teenage kids. That alone will create yet another large community. I think those methods of game creation and the communities are the two mainstays for having fighting games reintroduced to the markets.

Iwata: At one point, fighting games were engaged in fierce battles each other, but it seemed they had reached a dead end in its evolution path. The number of players had dropped off significantly. But with Street Fighter, I think that has changed. Nintendo had taken the stance of “increasing the gamer population.” We wondered why the consumers who used to play no longer were. We had to understand the reason and try to remove the barriers to get them to pick up an interest once more. We thought we’d be able to change the situation that way. When I heard about your approach today, I think it’s very similar to ours.

Ono: I think so, too. Some might describe it as just a matter of efficiency, but I think it’s really important to get through to people.

Iwata: Yes. You can’t really describe communicating with your consumers as just “increasing efficiency.” If I was a consumer, I wouldn’t want to be a part of that efficiency to receive their messages. No one would feel welcome that way.

Ono: Yes. When dealing with the consumers as a worker, you always have to put yourself in their shoes. For example, if you were at a restaurant and asked for water, wouldn’t you be mad if they said, “I don’t want to bother myself to bring it to you, so I want everyone there to pass it around.” (laughs) A better way to do it is like having a particular leaflet for this person or having a particular display for that person. Depending on how considerate we are to others, I believe it’ll increase the opportunities for us to be noticed.

Iwata: That’s very interesting! Generally speaking, games made for hardcore gamers don’t take that approach at all. For example, your Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition has the feature of “being able to use special attacks with just a tap on the touch screen.” Some might even feel that’s a “leeway feature.”

Ono: I agree. (laughs)

Iwata: When Nintendo made New Super Mario Bros. Wii, we made a system called the Super Guide for people who just couldn’t pass a stage. We received criticism that it’s an “easy mode that beats the game for you.” Your situation is identical, I think.

Ono: Of course, they don’t have to use the touch screen. We have stages for consumers who’d actually prefer that. But if we can get people to say, “That looks like fun! I should try it,” it would definitely increase the player population. If you’re the top player, wouldn’t it feel better if you’re ranked high among lots and lots of people?

Iwata: Yes. By getting more participants for Super Mario through Super Guide, they might understand how amazing it is to beat the game without using it even once. If more people become like that, I think it will increase the value of being able to play a game very well.

Ono: You’re exactly right. That’s definitely going to be talked about more: building the community even more. Coming from me, some people say I’m a sellout, but I believe game production is a service industry. We have to watch how we provide things and also take into account how people receive them.

Iwata: We’re doing things to get the consumers to like it. If there are fewer people who play, it’ll certainly be less worthwhile, too. That’s why, if we can get as many people to understand our values and to have fun in the process, I think more players will sympathize with that feeling. In the end, it’ll provide a better future for us, too.

Ono: Yes. In recent years, the diversity and age range of the consumers have continued to expand. At the very least, there seems to be fewer and fewer people who have zero interest in video games. So, how do we get them to go back to games? We have to try to fill in the gaps of what’s sucking away at their interest. I don’t believe that thinking about that conflicts with game creation or creativity.

Iwata: Yes. Ono: So, for example, to figure out what piques people’s interest in Europe, we don’t have to brown-nose people or change the fundamental play nature of the games. We just have to provide something “people can get excited about.” This is something we all have to think about. Ever since the failure with Shadow of Rome, this has been the foundation for me in terms of creativity.

Iwata: Now then, I’m finally going to ask you about the Nintendo 3DS system. (laughs) When you first saw the Nintendo 3DS system, what was your impression of it?

Ono: I actually wasn’t there when it was first showcased. That was when I was really busy. (laughs) The Street Fighter team was getting ready to distribute Street Fighter IV as an iPhone app around that time. This one was also a very easy-to-use version that people could just pick up and play. But I couldn’t feel that it has reached out to many people sufficiently. That’s when I got a Nintendo 3DS system and came to the conclusion, “This will definitely work.”

Iwata: You started a bit later than everyone else, but it’s going to be one of the launch titles. I really sensed a strong passion and motivation in you.

Ono: I think we declared that Super Street Fighter IV would be a part of it to Nintendo about two or three weeks before the E3 2010. (laughs) I got motivated and started by making something we could release at E3. What really drew me to the Nintendo 3DS system was the fact that it had many more features than just the stereoscopic display. One of the examples is its network functionality.

Iwata: Your wish to expand the community, just as you mentioned, was very compatible with what you can do with the Nintendo 3DS system, wasn’t it?

Ono: Yes. I think the 3D display is one of the “entrances” that attracts people’s interest. But I see how the Nintendo 3DS system has many other features. With that many functions, I believe you’d be able to communicate in a variety of ways through their games. And I hope they’d do it with Street Fighter. I’m willing to try out any number of ways to accomplish that.

Iwata: Right.

Ono: Then the Nintendo 3DS system would be able to make regular network matches smoother. With your system at the tips of your fingers, one would be able to play with anybody anywhere and anytime. Instead of just simply fighting, I also created another “entrance” in the form of the Figurine Mode. I wanted people to know that by using the Nintendo 3DS system they’d be able to play the game anyway they wanted.

Iwata: Not only is there the draw of being able to see things in 3D, you’ve added a number of other features that may become a topic to be discussed in the public, and this title put itself very naturally into the flow of the Street Fighter revival project. I can tell that the Capcom team is very adamant about implementing the wireless features. The tech staff of Nintendo had to match your enthusiasm. It was a very challenging but interesting job.

Ono: I was very excited at the time. We were wondering how far we could push the envelope on something that wasn’t yet complete.

Iwata: There you go again with your tendency to stuff things to the brim! (laughs)

Ono: Just the other day, when deadlines were coming up, I was told that we could also work in conjunction with the internal pedometer of the Nintendo 3DS system. I really wished they had told me that sooner. Right away, I changed the system to link it with the currency coins you’ll use to buy the figures. (laughs)

Iwata: You’re a programmer too, so you’re able to see what’s possible and what isn’t in that limited time span.

Ono: Yes. There’s no risk in that regard. But to tell you the truth, I was really nervous when staff members in hardware and OS departments of Nintendo and ours were in a situation where “it’s supposed to be like this, but we’re not sure!” At that moment, it made me think, “Yes! Yes! This is what development is all about!” (laughs)

Iwata: That goes with the territory for hardware launch titles. I think that’s the essence of it.

Ono: That’s right. But I can only say this now after the fact. (laughs) I’m very grateful that I was able to work with staff members who were excited about it throughout the journey. Iwata: It was hard work, almost excruciating, I think. But creating something together while sharing that excitement is something you can’t replace.

Ono: It goes to show just how fun the Nintendo 3DS system is and how much potential it has. I want everyone inside and outside the company to experience that. Also, for the consumers to experience something totally new, we can’t just use the features like some cookie-cutter formula. I want the staff members to think carefully about when and where to use it.

Iwata: Meaning where and how the consumers use features of the Nintendo 3DS system within the game to maximize their excitement?

Ono: Exactly. For example, linking up the coins with the pedometer rather than just in-game would affect the people who carry the Nintendo 3DS system around casually the most. To them, they can see some results right away instead of having to complete in-game stuff.

Iwata: And with that they’ll continue to wander around the next day and be motivated to experience StreetPass with someone else.

Ono: Yes. That’s why it was a great experience for the staff members to carefully see when the busses are passing them by.

Iwata: When people are using busses or trains to commute to school or work, we often see the same people. Now, we can enjoy the battles of the figurines with them. I’m eager to see what will happen with it.

Ono: For example, while playing in the Wi-Fi Arcade Standby Mode, someone can challenge you on the train or bus. They’ll realize that someone very close is also playing, potentially giving rise to another community. That’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to seeing. I think Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition is the best opportunity for people to learn about these kinds of possibilities. Oh, I’ve finally made an advertisement for it in this long interview. (laughs)

Full interview here