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Ex-Final Fantasy artists Akihiko Yoshida and Hideo Minaba on the creative process and designing for mobile

A deep discussion on how the renowned artists go about their business
Ex-Final Fantasy artists Akihiko Yoshida and Hideo Minaba on the creative process and designing for mobile

Akihiko Yoshida and Hideo Minaba, both former Square Enix artists, have had long and successful careers in the games industry.

The two have worked on numerous Final Fantasy titles, and at one point both had key roles in the artwork on Final Fantasy XII for PlayStation 2.

Nowadays, the two have joined publisher Cygames and spend their time mostly working on mobile projects such as Granblue Fantasy and Lost Order.

Yoshida is both a Company Director at Cygames subsidiary CyDesignation, as well as Art Director on numerous projects, while Minaba is President of CyDesignation.

On a visit to the Cygames office in Japan, caught up with the two renowned artists to discuss their creative processes and the challenges of designing artwork for mobile devices compared to console. How intensive is the workload for an RPG like Lost Order or Granblue Fantasy on mobile devices?

Hideo Minaba: It’s pretty intensive, however this is something I’ve been doing for 10 to 20 or so years so my brain is kind of used to this type of work.

Also I have a stock of pieces of work and so I use some from there as well. The hardest part would be to collect new information and researching.

Akihiko Yoshida: It’s not so different on mobile to let’s say a PlayStation 2 title that both myself and Hideo Minaba worked on in the past. This is certainly true when it comes to Lost Order. One reason is to do with how the smartphone has evolved and the technology has advanced.


How long has it taken so far to create these assets, and does the time it takes differ from game to game?

Hideo Minaba: The biggest change from a console title to a smartphone title is that for a console title you have to have everything from the opening of the game all the way through until the end when the game comes out.

However for a smartphone title where you constantly iterate, rather than being finished at launch, we can put out new stuff after release. As such, we can change things based on the reaction of the market as well.

So, things in mobile development have become quite different, and in many situations art assets are constantly being created and adapted.

“Things in mobile development have become quite different, and in many situations art assets are constantly being created and adapted.”
Hideo Minaba

Akihiko Yoshida: As smartphone titles have become more and more common the contents of the games have become more diverse.

When I was working on the art for a console title, I started out on pixel art for titles on consoles such as Super Famicom and PC Engine, and then moved on to 3D models. However, smartphone games have both 3D models and pixel art.

Also in smartphone games there are a lot of games that have their main focus placed on the art itself, such as card games. In fact when it comes to card games, how the teams are constructed is very different depending on what kind of art a particular person is working on. As such, the whole process becomes very specialised.

Going back to your question though, if you’re just talking about the time it takes, then it’s really intense when you’re working on a console title. It used to take a minimum of two years if you were working on PlayStation 2 title, but for PlayStation 3 and onwards it takes around five to six years.

Whereas for smartphone titles, until it comes out it’s only around one to two years mostly. However, if sales are good, production continues as the team adds more and more content.

Where did you draw inspiration from when designing the worlds and characters for games such as Lost Order & Granblue Fantasy?

Hideo Minaba: When it comes to Granblue Fantasy, the genre of Granblue Fantasy is something I have worked on for a very long time, and it’s something I’m used to working on so it wasn't that difficult to start work on it.


However, the difficult part was to try to maintain that and at the same time, find some common ground with the common era of players. Back in the day, people had these fantasy novels such as The Lord of the Rings.

These were titles that everybody knew and read. However, these days people don't really have these, except for maybe Harry Potter. So, adjusting that gap between what people know, and what people might like, was quite challenging.

Akihiko Yoshida: When it comes to Lost Order the game is a combination of fantasy and steampunk. Fantasy is something I have a lot of experience in, so I know in the back of my head a lot about fantasy. However, despite reading some novels steampunk is something relatively new to me.

“When I start with creative work, it is like there is a fog in my head. The process then is clearing out that fog.”
Akihiko Yoshida

When I first started I began by doing some research on movies and novels and collecting information. However, when I actually began the creation, I was mainly relying on my memories, the things I’ve seen and experienced in the past.

When I start with creative work, it is like there is a fog in my head. The process then is clearing out that fog in my head. Personally I would normally just grab a pencil and begin to doodle, and as I continue doing that, the fog begins to clear out and things begin to take shape.

In truth though, there’s no real right answer to this question. In my case it comes down to instinct, and sometimes it’s harder than others.

How difficult is it to design a world that looks completely original and stands out, when so many other companies in games and other mediums are working in similar genres?

Hideo Minaba: When it comes to the specific parts of what makes up a world, it often comes down to the things that interest me at the time. For example something I watched on TV.

When you talk about the original look, even if it’s something that I think is fun or interesting, it may not be to others so it kind of goes back to the last answer, but its ultimately important to try to find the common ground, and then I add something that I like or interests me.

Artwork from Cygames for <em>Lost Order</em>
Artwork from Cygames for Lost Order

For example, there is a sport that is similar to volleyball but in this sport you only use your legs, and this is a common and popular sport in some parts of the world. However, it’s not something everyone knows about.

But, if you first create a fantasy world and then have that sport inside of it, then that’s something that draws people into the world more.

Akihiko Yoshida: When it comes to technology and games, that’s something I learn from playing and watching games. However, when it comes to art in games, I try not to refer to any other video games.

“It’s worth noting that even during the process of making one thing the art style can change quite dramatically.”
Hideo Minaba

Instead I try to draw inspiration from things that aren’t games, such as movies, art, comics and anime. One reason for this is to make sure that it doesn't overlap with something somebody else has already done, but at the same time it would be something people would enjoy when they find it in a video game.

How do you find that original look that creates a consistent style for your game?

Hideo Minaba: I don't have a particular style so to speak, so everything I start on something new I start from scratch. This allows me to create a look that is both original and consistent.

Akihiko Yoshida: In my case I get a lot of requests from people to make something similar to something I have done in the past.

So I am always trying to find a place where I could break that mould and do something new, and to find a way to do something different to what I have done in the past. This is part of my process for creating a consistent original look.

Hideo Minaba: Also, it’s worth noting that even during the process of making one thing the art style can change quite dramatically.

Why do Lost Order & Granblue Fantasy look the way they do?

Hideo Minaba: When it comes to Granblue Fantasy’s art, I started by making several concept art pieces, and there was one image I created with a line of people and in the background there was the vast sky, and within this I could envisage a little island floating in the air.

That’s where I got the initial inspiration for making a fantasy world that drew lots of inspiration from the sky. This is something that went against the current trend of dark fantasy that had been popular up until this point.

Artwork from Cygames for <em>Granblue Fantasy</em>
Artwork from Cygames for Granblue Fantasy

Akihiko Yoshida: When we first started making Lost Order, it was just another fantasy title However, after we began, we started discussing having something that maybe isn't fantasy, and the current director Matsuno suggested steampunk, and I seconded his opinion because I like steampunk and we were kind of becoming bored with regular fantasy.

In fact, everyone was in agreement when it came to this decision about making something new. From there it didn't take that long to create what we have now, and that’s how we have the Lost Order we have today.

Are there particular art styles that are favoured by Japanese mobile gamers? If so, what are they?

Hideo Minaba: So one notion that’s very commonly understood in Japan and in overseas anime communities too is something we refer to as Moe. There are different kinds of this Moe design, and it’s not that I think that I have a complete understanding of Moe, but that’s something I keep in mind when I make something for the domestic market.

“I feel like the border between things that are favoured more in Japan and elsewhere has started fading these days.”
Akihiko Yoshida

Akihiko Yoshida: I feel like the border between things that are favoured more in Japan and elsewhere has started fading these days. Something that was only expected by a very niche market in Japan a while ago is something that’s already been accepted overseas nowadays.

We could go into depth and explore more but generally I feel these boundaries are breaking down.

How do you create an art style that’s both visually appealing to Japanese gamers and those in numerous other countries in the East and West?

Hideo Minaba: It’s always about finding the common ground and common knowledge about things. There was a specific title within a famous franchise that I worked on in the past that was based on sci-fi fantasy let’s say, but this title was also based on a European tale from further back in time.

So, when you keep going back there’s always going to be something people enjoy, and it’s about finding that. For me it’s about going back and forth in order to blend the new and old in order to find that common ground for what people will be entertained by.

This is my primary process when creating something with a global appeal.

Akihiko Yoshida: I personally think that my art style is not something that’s really mainstream in Japan. I’ve always felt my design was more suited to a niche market in Japan.

Except for a certain big title that I worked on in the past that Minaba mentioned, I’ve always liked the art style of more Western video games. So when I got to make very Western-style video games in the past I was pretty excited about it.

For me it’s always been not about making something that’s accepted in Japan or elsewhere, it’s been about making something that I personally like, and hoping other people like it too. Essentially, if I don't like what I’m creating, then it’s going to be hard to make some other people like it.