Yasuyuki Oda Mixes Old-School Expertise, Modern Conventions in King of Fighters XIV

By on January 30, 2016 at 1:23 pm
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Ah, that sweet scent in the air. Can you smell it? It’s the delightful aroma of fresh fisticuffs! Yes, we have plenty of amazing fighting games cooking in the oven for 2016, including a new release in one of the most beloved franchises of all time: The King of Fighters. Following a surprise announcement last year and a well-received showing at PlayStation Experience in San Francisco, the game’s latest build is now busting some heads over at the Taipei Game Show.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about this game, however, and we wanted to get some answers straight from the source. So we went there! Yes, we went all the way to Esaka, the district within Osaka that houses SNK Playmore’s headquarters. (Fun fact: You can find the station underpass that the King of Fighters ’98 Japan stage was modeled after mere steps from the company’s front door!)

We were able to visit the SNK offices for valuable discussion time with Yasuyuki Oda, the game’s director. He’s a veteran of the genre, having worked at SNK for decades before moving to Dimps, where he did battle planning work on Street Fighter IV, game design work on Super Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter x Tekken, and directorial work on Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. He’s now back under the employ of the house that Terry Bogard built and ready to help take King of Fighters into the next generation.

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What about the current market makes the timing right for a King of Fighters XIV?

Oda-san: Well, the PlayStation 4 is out and doing very well across several markets. It made sense, from an internal marketing standpoint, to begin work on another King of Fighters title.

The game’s being marketed heavily as specifically a PlayStation 4 title. Will there be an arcade version at all?

Oda: Initially, there were some internal discussions about whether we should go forward with a home-focused or an arcade-focused King of Fighters XIV, but we feel our efforts are best spent focusing on PlayStation 4.

Have you noticed a global shift from arcades to consoles for fighting games in general?

Oda: The global market for arcade games is honestly pretty small at this point. There are still companies trying to make things work in arcades, but it really is a lot easier to play fighting games on consoles nowadays, especially when you factor in things like netplay. The home consumer environment seems like where the future of fighting games is headed.

Why did you choose to make the game a PlayStation 4 exclusive?

Oda: One of the biggest reasons is that the sales for PlayStation 4 are doing very well globally. The tools have also been really easy to work with, allowing us to better tailor the game for home users.

Going back to the era of King of Fighters XII and XIII, there was a transition to HD sprite graphics, where everything was redrawn and reanimated. From my understanding, the making of these sprites was a long and difficult endeavor. Why are you throwing all of that out in favor of 3D visuals for King of Fighters XIV?

Oda: Well, we don’t really think of it as us “throwing away” anything. It’s more of a fresh start for this era of King of Fighters.

In the transition from 2D to 3D, what have you had to change, in terms of technical things like timing and animation? What has proven difficult in the transition process?

Oda: The most difficult thing so far hasn’t been development as much as getting a team together with the development chops to make a big fighter like King of Fighters. Finding people who can handle doing all of the development tasks within our set timeframe has been particularly difficult.

kofxiv-iori-testkitIt seems like it took a very long time to develop individual characters in King of Fighters XIII. There was a website SNK had a while back that highlighted the process, step by step. Is moving to 3D a time-saver in that regard?

Oda: Honestly, in the current industry, it’s far easier to find people who have experience developing with 3D models rather than sprites. There’s not a lot of young development talent who know a lot about 2D development. It’s basically just a lot of old-timers like me. (laughs)

You worked on a lot of classic SNK fighters in the 90s. Can you talk a bit about what sort of expertise you, as a fighting game veteran, are bringing to King of Fighters XIV that other, younger developers might not have?

Oda: First of all, I feel like there’s a bit of a “balance” between the veterans and the younger developers working on these titles. Secondly, when I think about what I’m bringing to the table…I was around when we were first setting up King of Fighters as sort of this Avengers-style mix of SNK fighting franchises. I understand where these characters come from, and what roles they play within the greater SNK fighting “universe.”

Perhaps there are some folks out there who might look at a game and judge it as “not a real King of Fighters game” based on some criteria. My goal, as well as the goal of the other veterans on the team, is to assuage users and let them know that this is an authentic King of Fighters. If you don’t know the original games well, it’s hard to make something that feels true to the series’ roots.

We’re carefully taking and synthesizing what people love about King of Fighters games, and making a new installment from there that we hope will be just as popular.

When you look across all the regions where King of Fighters is popular, it seems like the “favorite” installment varies wildly. Do you go back to study the older titles that these various territories like and try to pinpoint what it is people enjoy about them, then use that to develop new installments?

Oda: We start by really thinking about what makes King of Fighters what it is. For example, the series has distinct moves such as the jumps, power gauge, blowback attacks – those are very important to the feel of the games. That’s the base point we start at. From that point, the question is, “What kind of stuff do we want to add on top of that?” If we add too much, the game might be seen as too complicated. If you make it too simple, then people will get bored and stop playing it. That’s where we’ve had to discuss things.

When you get down to the nitty-gritty, a lot of fighting games share a set of basic systems. We could go as far as to make every character have a unique “system” to themselves. But we have to consider: is that really true to King of Fighters? That’s something to really consider.

It wasn’t just SNK back in the day – all of the publishers/developers were making games on a yearly basis. There was a lot of pressure to constantly change things up. A number of fighting games strayed too far from what made them so beloved by fans, and they suffered as a result. Look at the transition from Fatal Fury Special to Fatal Fury 3, or Samurai Shodown II to III. In contrast, King of Fighters ’95 to ’96 was a big change, but it was well received. There are tons of examples of successes and failures across the genre’s history. I’m kind of keeping the tendency for developers to want to make overly drastic changes in the back of my mind as we approach King of Fighters XIV’s development.

What is the process of developing the character roster like for each King of Fighters game? Do you take things like the character’s playstyle, fan popularity, and previous appearances into account when you decide whether or not to add them to the roster?

Oda: We really have to consider the roster as a whole. We can’t just do a King of Fighters with entirely new characters – we have to strike a balance between the new and the familiar. We also have to consider that, like you mentioned earlier, the series is popular globally, and every place where King of Fightesr is played has its local favorites and such.

For King of Fighters XIV, we actually decided on the number of characters early on in the game’s development. We then set about filling the roster, breaking things down in terms of geographical regions, popularity, and so forth. We also need to balance the roster from a visual standpoint – we can’t just have all women or all young men, for example.

What is the reasoning behind having such a large roster in King of Fighters XIV?

Oda: Yeah, it;s big, isn’t it? (laughs) We felt it was a good challenge, and we felt the drive to do it – the SNK spirit! King of Fighters is a series known for having a large roster – most games start off with between 14 to 18 characters. King of Fighters is 3-on-3 teams, so multiply that by three…yeah. And fifty’s a nice, round-sounding number, isn’t it? Internally, there was a bit of blowback, though, because it does mean a lot more work! But if you want to make a real King of Fighters, you need that roster size!

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Can you elaborate a bit on why you’ve changed some of the gameplay elements from King of Fighters XIII to King of Fighters XIV?

Oda: Making the game more accessible was a chief concern. Longtime fans who picked up King of Fighters XIII recognized a lot of those King of Fighters elements and quickly figured things out, but newcomers were a bit stymied.

The auto-combo system, for example: Fighting games were more popular in the mid-90s than they are today – the popularity has shifted more towards open-world and field-action type games. When you look at the general populace, beyond people who are really into fighting games, there are a lot of people out there who have difficulty doing special moves. In the arcade business model, you want to keep people coming back and spending money to play. If the audience is smaller but still spends a lot, that can be perfectly okay.

With a console game, the appeal needs to be broader. Looking at games across all genres, you see a lot of people playing games who just kind of mash on buttons, you know? But there are games designed to accommodate this sort of play. Looking at it from that perspective, adding something like that to a fighting game lets people get into it immediately.

Going off on a bit of a tangent – why do you think fighting games aren’t as hugely popular in Japan as they were back in the 90s?

Oda: Fighting games were born and primarily lived in arcades. The experience of playing a fighting game at home versus playing in the arcade was quite different. However, with the advent of online play, the experience of being able to find matches with other players became something you could do outside of arcades. There was also quite a long period in the 2000s where there wasn’t really a big fighting game for people to get excited about. You still had fighting game fans, and tournaments like Tougeki – perhaps Tougeki was even a response to the “drought” in fighting games during that time.

In the early days, PCBs were cheaper than recent prices. Then you have to convince the consumers to part with their 100-yen coins. Between the cost of development and the cost of hardware, and the upkeep of the arcade in general, the business is becoming less viable. And once that fighting game hits consoles, that’s another negative effect on the arcades running the game.

It was mentioned in a previous interview that Steam was a big impetus for SNK to get back into console games.

Oda: Yes. We look at console and PC as part of the same overall consumer market. By shelving pachislot operations, SNK’s main focus has become consumer and mobile games, including PC. As far as Steam goes, King of Fighters XIII did exceptionally well for us there.

The netcode for the console versions of King of Fighters XIII was the subject of much criticism. How are you approaching development of the netcode for King of Fighters XIV to ensure that it’s up to par?

Oda: We are definitely making sure the netcode will be solid this time around! We recognize that internet conditions globally are quite different from those in Japan. We’re doing the tests to make comfortable netcode.

King of Fighters players in the West who have played the game have commented that it feels like a return to KOF ’98/2002 style, where there aren’t as many super-long HD mode combos. MAX mode seems less like a thing designed for big combos and more like a system designed to grant additional options to the player. How much of that was intentional on the part of the design team?

Oda: Totally intentional!

Right now, rush combos do a lot less damage than normal combos, which seems like an intentional balancing move. Are you planning on making any further changes to the system going forward?

Oda: Right now, we just have the system in place. We’ll be tweaking it going forward.

kofxiv-kyo-testkit-tallWhat feedback did you get at PlayStation Experience, and how are you taking it into account?

Oda: We got a lot of response from both folks who were at the convention and online. We’re currently in the middle of analyzing all of the feedback.

As of right now, how many of the game’s characters are in a playable state?

Oda: They’re all currently playable right now, and they have basic moves, but many of them lack proper polish at the moment. Soon, though!

How do you plan to approach things like post-release updates, and how does the advent of post-release patches affect development of fighting games?

Oda: We’ll definitely be patching the game as people play it. Way back, you couldn’t really “fix” problems with a game post-release unless you spent a bunch to burn and distribute new ROMs. It’s very different now. I’ve experienced situations to fix bugs years after we thought we were done in the past! But since some development staff had moved on to other projects, it became a lot more difficult to do. So yes, post-release fixes are an interesting challenge in the current market.

From a story perspective, King of Fighters XIII wrapped up the Ash Crimson storyline. Where will the overall King of Fighters world be going from this point?

Oda: Hmmmmmmmmm! Well, it’s the start of a new “series” in King of Fighters, so I can’t say much concrete right now…but please look forward to it!

King of Fighters XIV is set to launch for PlayStation 4 sometime this year.