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Game Design Psychology: The Full Hirokazu Yasuhara Interview
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Game Design Psychology: The Full Hirokazu Yasuhara Interview

August 25, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[The most recent issue of Game Developer magazine printed a truncated version of this interview with Namco Bandai Games America senior design director Hirokazu Yasuhara. Gamasutra is proud to present the unabridged version. Yasuhara has a great design philosophy which he espouses here, complete with his original notes and illustrations, alongside a history lesson on the Sonic series.]

Hirokazu Yasuhara is one of the great unsung heroes of game design. He is currently senior design director at Namco Bandai Games America, and before that he held the unassuming title "game designer" at Naughty Dog, having most recently shipped Uncharted: Drake's Fortune -- but his history is inexorably intertwined with the history of modern character game development.

Yasuhara was the chief level designer on the original Sonic the Hedgehog, as the third person to join that team after Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, and played a key role in the fleshing out of that seminal title, as well as a number of its sequels. He was responsible for the first 3D Sonic game, Sonic R, and was involved in the Jak series for Naughty Dog since the first sequel.

In this extensive interview, Yasuhara outlines his carefully constructed theories of fun and game design, including the differences between American and Japanese audiences, with illustrated documents. After conducting this interview, I was convinced that he should write a book based on his theories. Until then, consider these words to be sketches -- a preamble to that necessary work.

I heard that you still use graph paper for all your level designs and things like that. What is your process for designing at this point?

Hirokazu Yasuhara: Actually, I stopped using graph paper to make the level. [pointing out some paper materials] I use this to work out all the gimmicks [ie. the unique features to each level], but I threw some small, easy --

Can I take a picture?

HY: Actually, no. (laughs)

It's so cute. I want that.

HY: So I come up with some ideas about events that are happening; how the player acts, you know, at each stage. What kind of results happen once you perform this or that gimmick in each level. For example, in a jungle stage, you would use...

So these are small bits of design concept, like moments that you could use? I see.

HY: Mm-hmm. So I come up with some ideas for the programmer to work with, and they decide what's good and what's impossible to implement, based on schedule or programming difficulty.

So it's more high-concept design, and then they narrow it down?

HY: Yeah. So this is the idea for a section, and I make a picture or a scan of what kind of image I have going, add some simple comments, and make a document that I bring to the artists and programmers. These are all concepts. I make a lot of ideas and inserts. And this is what I just created. I don't write the map by hand anymore; I use Illustrator instead to do the map. It has about five layers.

Do you think of ideas and then put down whatever comes to mind, and then is it you that shrinks it down to the actual design that it'll be, or is it other designers?

HY: I shrink it down by myself, actually. It's up to the schedule, so... (laughs) If the artists or programmers say "no", then that's the answer. So it's kind of a mix. I always try to push a can-do attitude with them, you know? (laughs) For the programmer. But sometimes, you know...

How do your ideas come from these individual moments into the full art of game game design?

HY: So I always think about all the different elements of what makes something fun. This formula is made by a sociologist from France who did some thinking into what it is that makes something fun, or interesting, for people to experience. One of the things is competition. The next is happy coincidences; a gamble that pays off, that kind of thing. Following that is dizziness or exhilaration, and the final thing is imitating, or copying.

For example, let's say we go to a theme park one day. There are two slides there: a regular metal slide, and one shaped like an elephant. Which one is more attractive to a child? It'll usually be the one with the elephant, because the form of "imitation" that it represents is more interesting to the eye. That, in itself, is enough to make it fun.

So what happens when you put all of these factors together? Well, if your park's trying to improve its business, then maybe it'd try to make the slide a longer or faster ride, or maybe make it bigger and shaped like a dinosaur so it'll be more fun for the kids.

Maybe they'll make it a dual slide so kids can compete with each other to get to the bottom faster -- add a competitive element.

If they keep going with it, it'll get big enough that it winds up becoming a log-flume ride or something -- but there's still more you can do, like maybe put wheels on the logs and make it look like a car.

It's a continual process to make it more fun. So the more you think about the externals of something, the more grandiose it'll wind up being. You'll wind up with a roller coaster eventually -- and then you'll make it rotate or something, if you think it'll improve business. That is one of my basic principles.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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This guy needs to make a book asap. I hope he sorts out some of his concepts in a genre-specific fashion to help out game designers that are stuck in genre-specific thinking. His concepts really do work across the board, but it might be a tough sell for a strategy (or some other genre) game designer to accept his thinking without specifics that explain how it can be applied to his/her own project. It's kinda funny hearing the Sonic creator explain how he equates a rollercoaster with being the ultimate extension of fun - although I can tell that he's got a much more nuanced view than that based upon his later comments.

leon lubking
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This article was a treat to read, and i certainly support the notion of Yasuhara writing a book!

His idea's seem quite applicable, not as abstract as some of the other theories that've been flying around lately.

Hopefully we'll see some of this in a more cohesive, thought through form later.

Luke Weatherlow
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This was definitely an amazing article. I loved when Hirokazu talked about the different geographic locations and how we handle stress, I would have never thought about that.

Brandon Sheffield
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He is really really smart. And don't worry, I'm on him about the book thing. It was the first thing I thought after speaking with him as well.

Frank Cifaldi
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Oh neat, I didn't know he did Pyramid Magic. That's good stuff!

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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Great interview. I think Yasuhara-san should devote his time to making us a new game instead of writing a book. I'd rather play his new game than read a book! :)

If you want to study his game design concepts, just play his games.

Bart Stewart
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It's great to hear pros like Yasuhara apparently using Roger Caillois's theory of styles of play, and then segueing into what seems to be descriptions of the four player types originally observed by Richard Bartle. The security-seeking ("fearful") motivation that Yasuhara mentions, for example, sounds very much to me like the motivation behind Achiever behavior in games: some players feel driven to compete to collect resources they perceive as scarce or unique.

I've been working for a while now on the notion that a lot of the theories of play styles popular today -- Bartle's types, Caillois's styles, Nicole Lazzaro's kinds of fun, even the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist model -- are actually analogs of each other, and that the types described by each of these modesl are play-specific aspects of the temperaments described in the more general psychological model of David Keirsey. And the point to doing this is to evaluate the idea that different people naturally prefer different kinds of gameplay, and that -- as Yasuhara implied -- a game is likely to be more appealing to more people if you're aware of the different playstyles and try to design your gameplay to satisfy those different interests when you can.

(I've got a chart at
l-chart.html showing possible congruences among the various models of play. I'd be interested in any constructive suggestions about this theory.)

I'd also love to see a book written on this subject of playstyle-centered game design. The more that designers understand styles of play and how to satisfy them, the more satisfying games can be made.

Jimmy Hoffa
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This interview is fascinating!

I am weary, though, of this constant comparison of Japanese and American game designers and players. I don't take offense when Yasuhara says that Americans prefer "destructive" games and Japanese prefer "creation" games. I look at it as a claim without merit which serves nothing more that to assert Japanese solidarity.

You see some cultural differences come to the surface with this, too. For example, a lot of Japanese people attain a feeling of security via creation, or making themselves look nice, or saving money. Not that Americans or Europeans aren't like that, but Americans may be more likely to take a more "destructive" process toward feeling safe.

I think a lot of that is because the things that you "fear" can be very different between nations -- not real, palpable fear, but more the lack of feeling at ease with yourself.

Something you don't like very much; something that stresses you out -- another word for "stress", really. And since sources of stress can be different between Americans and Japanese, it follows that the methods both populations take to relax would be different, too.

In my most simple reading of that passage, I understand that Americans fear for their safety and Japanese fear for their appearance and financial stability. If I am a marketing person, I want to see statistics comparing the two countries spending habits on games. In short, I don't think that those comments were made to encourage marketing.

Similarly, Yasuhara says that Second Life is "not a game." Second Life, in my opinion, is the epitome of "creation" games in that the game itself is created and motivated more by the user, less by the game designer.

I think that Will Wright made a similar point about game design, without vague reference to cultural stereotypes:

Robert Zamber
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I look at it as a claim without merit which serves nothing more that to assert Japanese solidarity.

This claim has plenty of merit, it points to the simple fact, that: American games are simply NOT FUN (wake up!): And Americans/westerners, collectively are the most destructive people on the planet (wake up!).

In regards to American games: Addictiveness and competitiveness is all that drives most of them. I can't remember the last time, I played an American game, feeling good, or satisfied, or like I was really having fun. Its more like the feeling I get when I'm losing at blackjack or poker in a casino; rather than the satisfaction of an amusement-park ride. He is absolutely right. GTA is a sandbox experience, it is not a game (it blows). Monopoly, is a game, chess is a game. Basketball is a game. Mario is a game, Zelda is a game, Pokemon is a game! THEY ARE SIMPLY FUN! Playing these games makes me feel good. I love these types of games. I love feeling good about what I'm doing, while I'm doing it:) This creates a different vibration in the mind and elevates your conciseness. This is what he meant by the "creation" method approach to game design. It has nothing to do with how much customization, or character-edit options there are in an experience/game (wake up!). Its not mechanical: It has to do with how the player feels during the experience: its about substance!

How does this not have merit?

The simple fact is: Collectively, Americans are not all that creative nor intelligent. We will have the most money, the most resources, opportunities, and the best technology, more so than any other peoples; and through our ignorance, manage to throw it into some downward spiral of destruction; rendering an art, science, you name it, to the lowest form of expression possible. GTA, and the whole FPS trend are prime examples of this (in games). Nuclear Energy (science): what did we do? Nuclear Bomb: annihilation of masses to remove "our" fears to feel safe: destruction (wake up!). Travel to a new land, encounter interesting new people (Indians): felt threatened, killed them all to remove a percieved threat, to "feel" secure; DESTRUCTION method (wake up!)

The "creation" principle applied to this same scenario would have gone something like this: Travel to a new faraway land: meet interesting new people (the Indians): share our fears, ideas, etc... come to an understanding, and join forces/parties to strengthen the security and well being of all/the group, and we can help each other achieve our goals/ends/means.

In fact, America and or western culture collectively, did not, and has not, till this very day, discontinued this psychological pattern of destruction (The War in Iraq over a million dead). Think about it! Up until the recent rise of Chinas economic power, The US was really the only "superpower" left in the world. How did we manage this? By the "destruction" of countless countries, to "secure", our security. We will spend billions, and kill millions, to preserve oil (destruction, McCain). Instead of using those same resources to create or develop new energy resources, that would create new jobs, and boost the economy (creation method; Obama). This is the common theme, and main cultural difference he was pointing to, that is evident in many of our games, and our collective mind in general.

Instead of the high road of the "creation" method of "joining a party" or working with others, to overcome our true enemies: poverty, and ignorance; we implement policies to create poverty and ignorance: even to the demise of own sons and daughters.

I hope this helps you see the merit in what he was saying.

Obama 08!

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"The simple fact is: Collectively, Americans are not all that creative nor intelligent."

Wow trade one hyperbole for another. Except you dress it up as "fact".

There was a Miyamoto interview a while back praising the indie movement in the west saying that there is a new generation of creativie developers.

Your commentary and extreme hyperbole does a disservice to developers of Spore, Portal, Braid, The Sims, and a variety of innovative games that have come from non-japanese developers.

Brandon Sheffield
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james riddle: I think that the japanese/western comparison is valid simply because it's a tangible differentiator between tastes. And he doesn't mean destructive in the real sense, just in terms of ways of dealing with things. When he spoke about seeing bumps and wanting to smooth them out, that's the root of the whole thing.

The fact is that there are cultural differences - to assume that gamers and people are the same everywhere would be kind of naive, and I think this comparison does a good, though very high level (ie through broad generalization) job of putting some of the pieces together.

Dedan Anderson
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Good article, i've had the pleasure of working with 2 japanese designers and i've noticed that they are very visually oriented, all their docs have more drawings than words, a trend i try to follow!

But I have to do some myth busting: I believe there is a disconnect amongst the game press and the consumer: i believe the japanese taste in games still happens to be the dominant taste in the west, its just not reflected in the press... take a look at the charts and it's still dominated by japanese style games, even if they are made in the west (i.e.: guitar hero), this week for example top 5 IS madden, but all the rest are japanese style games: wii fit/play, rhythm game from DS, soul calibur 4, metal gear solid, etc... so though the press touts open ended & fps' the truth of the matter is far from that.

I also don't think this taste is derived from the Japanese consumer's culture as it is from the Japanese company's culture. If you compare Western Companies to Eastern companies you will see a big age difference, so to speak, a big historical difference. To clarify, most japanese game companies were around before video games, Nintendo, Namco, Sega all pre-date pong, while pretty much all western game companies (exception midway) came about recently after the tech booom really. I think this is where the key cultural difference really lies, not in the consumer, but in the company. That's why the crossover appeal is so lopsided, the companies in japan have been in the business of selling things longer that the companies in the west. This is an interesting point that i've never really seen explored in the press...

Brandon Sheffield
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60 Hertz - I can tell you that the grand majority of reviewers (I am not one, but we all go to the same press events!) grew up playing Japanese games and still love them - any talk of FPS trumping things like platformers comes from actual data and volume of releases.

Dedan Anderson
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brandon - though not considered the official authority this website is pretty darn accurate:

weekly chart:

yearly chart:

and when u consider the wii/ds out sells all other systems combined (in ALL territories), you can see how i find it hard to believe that fps' are the dominant genre... where are the numbers that show FPS's are the dominant, i can see Halo, COD selling extremely well but at the same time i see Pokemon and Smash Bros selling comparable... i mean the chart is really dominated by nintendo... so maybe i'm interpreting the data strangely, or i just dont understand what dominance means... i could be wrong, but when i look at the charts i'm not seeing it.

Robert Zamber
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Wow trade one hyperbole for another. Except you dress it up as "fact".

The article wasn't speaking about indie dev: so I didn't see the point of going there. But yes I do agree with you about our indie scene, and I hope one day major publishers embrace this creativity on both sides. Because, its the gateway to expanding into new markets, especially the one in Japan, that we just can't seem to interest.

Speaking in terms of our "major labels" if you will: they put out allot of unimaginative garbage. I used GTA because its the epitome of this, and does in fact, represent an aspect of our culture that is destructive, unintelligent, shallow, and unimaginative.... it's pure garbage. And the analogies I used to illustrate the point, are in fact, facts! We will spend billions of dollars, waste peoples lives, waste valuable resources, to destroy something. A critical and honest look at our history will show you that this is true. And yes it directly coincides and coralates into our "perceived" (highly misinterpreted), loyal gaming market... the angry, middle aged white male. Usually the avatar in these games is this generic, unimaginative, and shallow, Arc type (just like our president): The angry, middle aged, white alpha male, hell bent on avenging his aggressors, or punishing "evil doers". He sees himself as a dying breed, or the only one who can bring "evil doers" to justice to restore peace and democracy. And he goes about this by killing everything in his path. This is a behavior pattern that is evident in our culture. It is how our so called "core gamers" see themselves. Which is fundamentally destructive.

But I have to do some myth busting: I believe there is a disconnect amongst the game press and the consumer: i believe the japanese taste in games still happens to be the dominant taste in the west, its just not reflected in the press... take a look at the charts and it's still dominated by japanese style games, even if they are made in the west (i.e.: guitar hero), this week for example top 5 IS madden, but all the rest are japanese style games: wii fit/play, rhythm game from DS, soul calibur 4, metal gear solid, etc... so though the press touts open ended & fps' the truth of the matter is far from that.

Yes, what you say (in my experience) is very true. Whenever I go into game-stop, or eb, I rarely ever hear the sales reps ranting and raving about the latest FPS or war game, open ended games, or any game made by one of our major publishers for that matter. Usually they're talking about a new DS release, or an MGS4, many of the games you mentioned, plus countless other smaller releases on the PS2 e.g. an Okami, Odinsphere, Persona (excellent game) etc. And your right, the media bouts quite the opposite. Also I think its important that you pointed out: that Japanese games appeal to the "core" of gaming culture abroad (east and west). But for some reason, we will hear more about a game such as TooHuman (a DMC clone) which has a ton of customization features, but has horrendous gameplay, a lame story, corny characters, and corny voice acting. But, somehow, G4 gave this a 4, and DMC a 3. I would have preferred, one solid character, with good, fun solid gameplay, and a moving story over this open ended sandbox crap they keep pushing on us. They continually overate, and over publicize these types of games. This "open ended, sand box" design (imho) is becoming nothing more than a marketing strategy: where giving you more, is less. They can sell you games with mediocre, poorly designed and tested game play, with lame characters, and poorly developed stories: but, you can customize everything! and it looks....super real. Believe it or not, this works: for those who don't know any better. So, basically what the industry (US) is telling people: we don't care if its good, or fun, as long as you buy it. We just want your money.

The other difference (imho) is: In Japan, it is still a labor of love. So they take the time to develop games that they, as artist, designers, and writers, feel good about. Hear, its not that way: you must conform to what the publishers are pushing, and what the market demands if you want to sell your game.

Which brings me to your point again of "our media/market analysts (whatever you want to call them) are completely out of touch. This is evident in other media as well: such as the music industry. Everyday the quality, and variety of music on the radio, and other major media outlets, is less and less. But, they claim, "this is what the market wants, this is what we have to promote/play". But, when I talk to people about what they actually buy, and like, its quite the opposite.

I find this rather perplexing and suspicious.

Yannick Boucher
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Fabulous interview, I've never seen these concepts be laid out so eloquently ! As for 60 Hertz's comment, I'm tempted to feel exactly the same way. Brandon, it's true that the sales are there, and god knows i love Call of Duty 4, but if you were to sort out the demographics a bit, I'm quite sure "veteran gamers" would still overwhelmingly go for Nintendo, Sega, Konami, Capcom games... is it just a sign of the times, though ?

Satbir Singh
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A very nice read. Simple but important concepts explained in a very simple way.

I hope Gamasutra gets more articles from him. We need to read more of his stuff.

Marque Sondergaard
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What is a reference to the American presidential election doing on a discussion about games design? I frankly find that disgusting. Please let's discuss games development and please refrain from soliciting personal political points of view.

Vince Majestyk
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"FPS trumping things like platformers comes from actual data and volume of releases. " brandon sheffield

I have been looking for the data that supports this statement and I cant find them can someone direct me in the right direction please? thank you.