Dax J Martin-Cheeves
TALKTIMELIVE.COM EXCLUSIVE with YEO
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
NOTE: This interview took place in 2018 when the game "The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa" was released on the Nintendo Switch.
37 years game developer Vadim Gilyazetdinov from Moscow, Russia, goes by the name “YEO”, which is a nickname he came up with in his school days while achieving a high score in a racing game. The name also pays homage to his appreciation and fandom for the Japanese culture.
YEO has a passion and ambition to bring his narrative to life in the form of his favorite fandom which is video games. This led YEO (and his team) to create one of the most compelling retro 2D open world games out now for STEAM and recently Nintendo Switch called “The friends of RINGO ISHIKAWA.” which has received much praise by fans and media.
I had the opportunity of talking with YEO about the creation of this title and more.
DAX: Where did your journey begin as a game developer?
YEO: I wanted to be connected with game development since University (I have a master’s degree in chemistry) but I didn’t know how to code and I couldn’t draw (I believed that I was good at writing dialogues though) so I applied to some Russian game development companies for any minor junior role they had but they just ignored me. It was no wonder since I hadn’t any work experience.
I started to work at some government company and in 2006 I was introduced to Game Maker 6.1 by my colleague and close friend with whom we run first Russian Nekketsu fan-site. And I made some beat-em-up action with Kunio-Kun sprites in a week) And it was like whole new world opened for me).
But I never thought that I could do commercial games. I was just having fun with Nekketsu of Mighty Final Fight sprites. I made some small games with them for my local web friends and for myself and most importantly for the process of doing it. Since I don’t believe in result too much, you could achieve it or not, but the process is what you got anyway, so if it was fun and interesting that’s more than enough.
DAX: How many people did it take to develop this game as well as how long did it take to develop it?
YEO: The Steam made possible for small developers to be introduced to the large audience. And when my fellow developer passed Greenlight and then successfully released a game in 2015, I started to think of doing the same. I had quite good and stable job as a team leader at the Moscow IT Government Department so I could afford to hire an artist at last. I never thought of it before though, that you can just hire somebody.
So, I started to look for an artist. Prototype of the game was ready. All these years I tried different battle mechanics with Nekketsu sprites, and literally honed my skills little by little. You can see how Ringo looked back then:
I posted some job description on game dev forums and it started (“your game is shit”, “you’re a moron” “you’re paying too low” “you should better be doing some Russian aesthetics”, “it’s a dumb clone”, “nobody could do 60 backgrounds alone”, “you should hire a team”) It really was hard to get by. I read all these insults and recommendations for 2-3 months and then suddenly one man sent me a really beautiful background and I thought “no kidding? It could be a BG for my game?” That’s how we started to work with Artem “Wedmak2” Belov, a man who made my game even possible.
Then I had to recruit a character's artist. And it was another 2 months of hell. And I almost lost hope already. I asked every real live person I knew who could draw a straight line besides web searching and all my friends refused. I even asked my 58 years old father and he opened some image redactor, looked at pixels, closed and said no.
I was walking with my mother one day and she asked about the game, how the things going, and I said “mom, I can’t find an artist, please, talk to dad, he doesn’t work, he has nothing to do, maybe he can try again, it’s not that hard” and she said, “I’ll see what I can do”.
I must say that my father is no artist. But he’s very talented in different areas so I believed that he could handle it if he wanted to. And couple of days later I installed him the graphics gale and taught him how to choose colors and place dots. And little by little, step by step, he drew around 1000 frames for Ringo in next 2 years.
I tried to work with musicians also but we couldn’t get along. First musicians wrote 3 tracks that I love though, and they wrote final theme among then (the best track in the game), the band named “indian&fox”, very talented guys, it’s sad that they couldn’t do whole soundtrack. So, in the end, Royalty Free Tracks saved me. It was really months of listening and choosing tracks and it was really time-consuming (I was doing it at night usually when I was too tired to code) but I’m proud of the result. I also don’t care about them been royalty free. Almost any Tarantino’s soundtrack is Royalty Free.
And it was guys who did translations but it could be too long to tell about them. I want to mention Dmitry Ostrozhskiy above all who did English translation. And also, Guillaume Veer, and Indienova team for Chinese localization and Misa Sekiguchi Webb, Ueda M. and Chie Koizumi for Japanese. If I started to name one, I can’t forget others.
And, I had 2 web friends who discussed with me everything and gave their opinions and insights all these years. I consider them as a team. stray_stoat and Mr.Chelnoque. They were there for me anytime I needed them. And while they didn’t actually write dialogues or code or something like that’s a core of my team. It’s really hard to go such distance on your own. Only some hardcore guys like Eric Barone are capable of that.
So, I was doing Ringo and when I was watching some movies like “La-La Land” or “Joy” or any other dream related stuff I couldn’t look in their eyes because they asked me “all right you had a dream and you found out what you really love and you’re good at it but have you done everything you could? Did you give it all? Did you risk any?” And I couldn’t say “yes” to any of them. But it’s the life without regrets that give you real freedom.
When I said to my wife that I had to quit the job she wasn’t really happy about it. But she said “Do what you gotta do. We’ll manage somehow.”
I didn’t have to quit my job to release the game. I could easily release it while still working; I had a lot of free time there. But I was a casino gambler in my youth days so I knew that you need to bet something if you want to win any. And you better risk high if you want a jackpot). So, my career was the only thing I could bet actually.
DAX: The friends of Ringo Ishikawa is a very ambitious and free-thinking experience with no rules and direction. Can you talk about what led to this form of gameplay?
YEO: I usually reflect on everything I do so when I reflected on my gaming experience, I noticed that I don’t play to win a game. I play to live in a game. I played it like this since ZX Spectrum’s Saboteur for example
I never passed 3 first screens in the game since it was awfully controlled and dogs killed you by touching but you could be a ninja in it. In the first scene a ninja sails on the boat, then he enters some building and then dogs and enemies appear). But I was pretending that I was a wounded ninja who’s going to a suicide mission. And I was sailing in the boat like in a movie. So, I was walking fearlessly and dying like a warrior.
And I played almost any game like that. And on NES my favorites was Technos Japan’s Nekketsu series. All of them, but especially Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (River City Ransom) and Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu. You could live there. It was like early GTA game. Free roam/open city, usual daily activities. You couldn’t die also.
And you had all other Nekketsu games as a part of one big Universe. So, you could live in DNM, then switch to Ike Ike and play some hockey, then go fighting in NKD. I wished there was one big Nekketsu game where you could live and participate in different activities without changing cartridges. And I was designing one on the paper when I was at University. Just for fun. Just for “what if I could do a game someday”. And I wrote to notebook “You can smoke by pressing a button”. It was 2002 or 2004.
DAX: This has the definite essence of the classic 8-Bit series RIVER CITY RANSOM. Where there any other games that you were inspired by in the making of this title?
YEO: Beside Technos games I was heavily inspired by Shenmue of course. That was another game of my dream. Martial Arts, Japan, snow flying right in the face.
Another obvious inspiration is Persona games, especially 3rd one. I didn’t like Tartarus part (though JRPG is my favorite genre) but the school part was perfect.
My personal best (is) Final Fantasy 7. I believe it’s a perfect game and it inspires me every time I even think of it. You won’t see exact influences from it, but it’s there. For example, you could buy a villa later in the game (FF7). And by the time you could buy it you actually don’t need it. But it was something special when you just entered (the) menu and it said “Cloud’s Villa” in location’s name. Or you could hit a heavy bag in the basement. It didn’t do anything. You just could hit it. And that’s all.
DAX: Where there any coming of age/gang related movies, anime, or manga that inspired the creation of this game as well or maybe some past experiences growing up?
YEO: I think that everything you have seen and read and played is inspiring you and forming your sense of style and aesthetics. I was a delinquent myself, and a gambler addict, I used to box and kickbox and I’m still training, actually almost all Ringo movements are redrawn (not rotoscoped) by my father from my photos. So, I wanted to share some personal feelings with players and I knew what I was talking about hard way. So, I wasn’t look up to any manga or a movie actually. But I read and watched a lot, and I gave homage to some of my favorite works, Ringo can read some of my favorite books in the game.
Between youth gang movies my personal best is Korean “Once upon a time in high school”. That’s a real masterpiece, real masculine movie. I was aiming at this level of quality but I didn’t reach it. This movie is on another level. I hope that Ringo can still be compared to it.
DAX: You are obviously a fan of retro games, what were some of your favorites growing up?
YEO: I’m still playing retro games actually. I don’t really like new games and I hadn’t completed a game in 5 or 6 years. Last game that blew my mind was Way of Samurai 3. It’s a really awesome game. I didn’t like 4th game in the series and didn’t play first ones. But this game is something else. I also played a lot of EA Fight Night series, all of them are good and it’s a pity they abandoned the franchise. That’s my favorite “next-gen” games.
I like many PS one games, mostly JRPG: FF7, FF8, Xenogears, Wild Arms etc. There was some interesting CAPCOM beat'em up on PS2 I can recommend: Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance and Shinobido Imashime of course.
For real retro games, I still play first Streets of Rage from time to time, I beat it 3 or 4 times some weeks ago on Switch. My favorite straight beat'em up is Mighty Final Fight on NES though. I really love this game, it’s a gem. Also, I like Bucky O'Hare, Mitsumi ga Tooru, Double Dragon 2, Duck Tales. That’s my favorite on NES. Beside Nekketsu of course.
DAX: There are multiple ways to play “The friends of Ishikawa.” Is there one true way to play this game or did you have the idea of letting the player go to any direction they want and have different results?
YEO: I’m really tired of modern games that take you by the hand. If there’s a mini-map in a game you don’t look at the backgrounds, you play it on the minimap, so any game comes down to some white triangle moves to green circle which activates a cut scene, richly animated and directed, voiced over, cinema-like. Then you gain control over the character again and go to another green circle, sometimes you mash buttons between. I drop games like that in half an hour regardless the quality and graphics and wrinkles on the face when chars do smile.
I also tired of tutorial messages on any action. So, I made only the basic ones in my game. So, it’s easy to pick up like older games where any tutorials weren’t and there were 2-3 action buttons and you just tried everything.
And I think it's fun. It’s a kind of exploration. You try different things and see outcome and you investigate and when you discover something you really enjoy it and you feel smart and by doing it you (are) starting to feel connected to a character.
We argued about all this with mr.chelnoque and stray_stoat but I believed in my vision and positive reviews proved my point. I knew that there’d be many players disappointed that the game doesn’t give you any direction and you don’t know what to do etc. But I also knew that some players would love it for the same reason. And that goes for multiple endings as well. I considered different endings of course and at some point, it was even “A friend of Ringo Ishikawa” so you had to generate your character who was Ringo’s best friend from childhood and you could more role-play in the game, it was a date-sim part also. But then I decided to tell this exact story about this exact character with the exact ending. So, some things just fell off. It’s not in Ringo’s character to have multiple girlfriends for example, so I gave up on the dating sim. And there were more sacrifices I had to do.
As for the right way to play it, on the contrary, I wanted players to play their own but to stay in a character. That’s why you can’t rob your classmates, for example, and you still have to fight in some scenes cause Ringo is a gang leader, after all, you can’t turn him into a complete nerd.
The whole game came from one final scene and I designed it backwards actually, I wanted players to really feel that very scene. I don’t want to spoil it though for those who didn’t complete the game. So, I wanted payers to live in the game and to feel the ending if they care to complete it.
DAX: What’s next for you? Is there any chance we will see a sequel following The Life of RINGO?
YEO: I’d rather not do it and I have some reasons for it.
First of all, I’ve said what I wanted with this game. I also wanted to make a game with a generated character where you could really do what you want and have different endings (like Way of Samurai for example) but if I expand Ringo’s Universe his story could fade. And I don’t want to sacrifice it.
Secondly, it’s really common to make a sequel to a well-received game. And while it’s easy it could turn into creative chains; I want to be free. That’s why I quit my job also. To do what I want to and not what is best for business or others.
That’s why my second game will be quite short also. I understand that some players have great expectations of my games but it also can drain creativity, fear of failure. So again, I decided on what to do next just by listening to myself.
“What kind of game you want to do now? What inspires you?” And when I captured setting and gameplay it turned out that I can’t do a long game with it. But gameplay is really good and I have one interesting idea also, and some thoughts I want to share. So, I decided on what could be good for this idea to be properly told.
I want to try to stay creatively free for as long as I can.
I almost ready with this game, but Artem Belov (who’s in charge of BG again and he’s doing astounding work again, even better than in Ringo), he got married and got an office job so he (has a) lack of time now, and he draws slowly. And while I’m waiting for him, I started to work on another project but it’s a secret for now.
Thanks to YEO for taking the time to chat with me on such a great game.
Be sure to check out “The friends of RINGO ISHIKAWA” available now for STEAM and Nintendo Switch.