Interview by Aki Naoe
Photography by Miho Kimura
CyDesignation is a group of creators involved in the concept art and character design for games like Granblue Fantasy and Rage of Bahamut, as well as War of the Visions: Final Fantasy Brave Exvius (abbreviated as WotV.)
At this time, they're looking for new people to work as 3DCG and 2D artists. We spoke to president and top creator, Hideo Minaba, as well as WotV's head character designer and up and coming lead artist, Ryoji Oohara.
At the end of this article, we've included illustrations from CyDesignation and a drawing video from Ryoji Oohara, so please enjoy this fascinating interview all the way to the end.
The deciding factor in hiring: People who are driven to create an entire work
── You're hiring new people, but how did Ryoji Oohara come to work at CyDesignation?
Ryoji：Actually, it just sort of happened. First I applied to CyDesignation's parent company, Cygames, as a new graduate.
Hideo：At that time, we still weren't hiring directly at CyDesignation. But, we wanted to hire a recent graduate. Cygames told us to pick someone, so we chose Ryoji and took him from the parent company. He was the first recent graduate we hired, but we hire new graduates every year now.
Ryoji：While I was in training, I was working at Cygames and helping out at CyDesignation. My work during that time was acknowledged, and they told me I could choose to work at either Cygames or CyDesignation.
During my training I learned a lot from Hideo and we had a good relationship, and I was so happy when he asked me to join, so I decided to go to CyDesignation. When I look back, I made that decision really lightly. It's a pretty laid back company.
Hideo：There's no harsh training or strict company policies here. Bigger corporations need stuff like that, but we're a smaller group so we don't need to be that strict. We try to make things as comfortable as possible.
We place a lot of importance on creative freedom. So instead of saying, "Do this!" we try to ask, "Which of these would you like to do?" or "What if you tried this?" You could call that laid back, but it's really a company that places importance on each individual's discretion.
── Ryoji, when you were looking for work, did you focus on applying to game companies?
Ryoji：When I was looking for a job, I didn't consider anything except the gaming industry. That being said, this wasn't a straightforward journey for me. More than drawing, I wanted to create games. At the time, I wasn't interested in just creating individual works of art, and I didn't study at an art college. I studied industrial design at Tokyo Metropolitan University and was able to learn about everything from architecture and automotive design to public planning and film making, as well as programming and many other fields. So, I'm really happy that I get to work on more than just drawings at this job.
CyDesignation has a lot of staff famous for working on the Final Fantasy series at Square Enix, including Hideo. But, I actually didn't know much about Final Fantasy. So, when I joined I had to scramble to play the games as fast as I could.
Hideo：Our staff are all incredibly talented artists, so we are always looking for people who are deeply committed to their craft. Some of our recent works like NieR: Automata or Granblue Fantasy are really popular, and there are probably some people who want to join our company because of works like that. But, our company is also known for being kind of mysterious, so I hope people can learn more about what kind of work we do from this article.
── Why was Ryoji hired?
Hideo：Of course he's a talented artist, but he also wrote on his resume that he has programming experience. His portfolio included web comics that showed an understanding of the framing and staging required in animation. The execution needed some work, but it conveyed his desire to create original works. At our company, we really value people who don't just want to create individual drawings, but rather are interested in developing the entirety of a work.
The goal with WotV was designs that looked great as a game
── How many people are on your team?
Hideo：We have teams as small as 10 people, but on really big projects we can have teams as big as several hundred.
Ryoji：For WotV, we have a team of 8 in charge of character illustrations. In that team we have character designers and people who take the illustrations all the way from a rough sketch to a final illustration. If you want to talk even more specifically, we have a team member who's only job is to take the rough drawing and create clean line art. I'm in charge of overseeing every part of that process and acting as the main character designer. After five years at the company, my desire to challenge myself had grown really strong. So, when I was entrusted with this role I jumped on it right away and was really happy.
In the year leading up to release, we designed about 80 characters. Right now, we're continually designing and adding new characters.
── When you get a request for character design from a game company, how much autonomy does CyDesignation have?
Ryoji：In the case of WotV, we were given relatively specific directions. But, you don't have to follow all of those instructions, because in the end, all that matters is that they like the designs. It's not that strict, and we do have some freedom to an extent.
Hideo：Sometimes we make two or three rough ideas and let them choose what they like.
Ryoji：The information we get from our client is specifics about the character's physical characteristics, their past, and their personality. WotV is a story about a war between many different kingdoms, and the design of each character depends on what kingdom they come from. They wanted each kingdom to have a distinct style, but what exactly that style might look like was up to us.
Hideo：One of our designers, Akihiko Yoshida, previously worked as a character designer for the game Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions at Square Enix. This time, we talked about creating designs along that line. However, Akihiko's illustrations have a very distinct style, and it sort of felt like we were just making inferior copies. So, the challenge was how to incorporate Ryoji's talent and the style of character he wanted into the design. We made a sample and the producer loved it, so we went with Ryoji's style. WotV will be a project we continue with for many years, I think, so it was really important to build a solid foundation for our designs right off the bat.
Ryoji：We consulted a lot about that within the company. I made a ton of drawings and they encouraged me to develop in a certain direction, so I was able to continue working with confidence. I was always so happy whenever Hideo would come by to see what I was working on and would say something like, "Hey, this is good."
── From the time you joined the company until now, what skills have you improved the most?
Ryoji：I don't really feel like my drawing ability has improved significantly, but my sense has gotten better. Now I can tell what kind of artwork will be popular and what kind of designs we should go with. When I was focused just on drawing I didn't notice that kind of thing, but now I've become able to step back a bit and look at things from the customer's perspective.
I think I've learned this from the great advice I've gotten from the veteran artists working here, especially Hideo. When I first joined, I had no sense of what customers wanted. Sometimes I'd think, "Why'd they pick that design?" or "I thought this one was better." But, when those designs went out into the public and I saw the feedback they got, I was able to see in retrospect that they made the right choices time after time. Even this time around, I wanted to use a darker, duller color scheme, but I got the advice that I should use more saturated colors.
The viewpoint of the game designer and the player are different. Lead artists need to think about the game not only from the perspective of the designers, but also from the perspective of the players. That balance is difficult, but I've become more aware of those differing perspectives over time.
Hideo：This is the second time we've been on the same team, and I don't usually get involved in character design. It was never released in Japan, but we've also created an indie game with a French company. Ryoji was the main designer for that project, but we basically just talked about trying to make the character design more stylized than it was then.
Ryoji：The look of the characters were not my usual style, but rather the type that look better stylized. When me and Hideo discussed it, we decided that because this would be a 3D game, we needed to create really clear silhouettes. We wanted to make male and female characters with really strong figures.
In the past, consumer games would get created by the designer painting the artwork, pixel by pixel. So, I have coworkers with a lot of experience in different fields.
── What was the most difficult part of this recent project?
Ryoji：Management is difficult. This is my first time creating a wide array of characters while also managing my own team.
On the artistry side, if you give overly detailed instructions, you tie the artist's hands. I thought about how to leave room for creativity when I give advice. There are some people who thinks it's better to say as much possible, and others who think it's better to be more selective with your advice.
Hideo：I knew Ryoji could handle management so we entrusted the job to him, but not everyone is suited for every role. An illustrator's main job is creating artwork, of course, so there aren't many who are great at managing. I struggled with it at previous jobs and I never force it upon anyone. People who are good at it should do it. Especially in the world of art, there's a sort of hierarchy where people don't want to follow someone who isn't better at them at drawing.
I was expecting a lot from Ryoji, but he's never had any big setbacks. I kind of wanted him to experience failure, at least once, haha.
Ryoji：He's definitely said, "Just mess up already!"
Hideo：It's good to challenge yourself and fail. That's how you grow.
── Do you have any coworkers you look up to?
Ryoji：Everyone in the office is legendary and I respect them all a ton, but I think the character designer for Granblue Fantasy, Yuya Nagai, is incredible.
Ryoji：Yuya is great at stylish, realistic designs, but actually he can draw very memorable characters. The reason I think his characters are so popular is that they have a strong, memorable core to them. He can create memorable designs from his head or incredible photo realistic artwork. I think he's amazing.
Grandblue Fantasy: Versus is a fighting game that came out in February of this year. Only a few characters were chosen from the vast amount that appear in Granblue Fantasy, but a lot of them that were chosen were Yuya's designs. They were chosen on the basis of how good they would look in a fighting game, so we got to see how well his designs worked yet again.
When they get busy, they increase the number of people, not the hours! The power of a small organization
── How big is your staff?
Hideo：Including full time, contract and outsourced employees, we have 26 on staff. About 20% are women. Until recently we've only had men applying, but we've had more female applicants as of late and have been hiring more women. Also, about 20% of our staff are foreigners.
The ages are also diverse. The eldest staff member is in their fifties while the youngest is about twenty. I want this company to have longevity even after I retire, so I'm putting a lot of importance on hiring many new people. I think we want to provide a work environment where artists who may be worried about how to pay for their next meal can feel at ease about earning a living.
── What are some of the benefits of working at CyDesignation?
Hideo：We offer support with rent and moving expenses, as well as childcare. Because we're a new company, we haven't had employees need maternity or paternity leave yet, but of course we're happy to offer that.
Moreover, we provide a lot of opportunities to talk with other teams and network within the company. We pay for a company trip once a year, and you can bring your family along, too. Last year we went to Ishigaki Island. We also have parties and lunches once a month. Participation isn't mandatory of course, so there are some people who don't go.
Also, Cygames is a new company with brand new facilities. We can use the relaxation room and drink server and things like that.
── What is the work environment like?
Ryoji：We use these great chairs from Baron, and so you never really feel tired. Pretty much everyone uses LCD tablets. I mainly use CLIP STUDIO PAINT, but if you ask for it, the company will provide pretty much any software you need. Our computers have great specs, and if there's an issue, the company's tech support will handle it. I don't have any complaints about the work environment.
I don't know about other companies, but people working here who have come from other companies all say this place is amazing. I guess it's rare for a company to supply a LCD tablet for each and every person. I'm using a 27 inch tablet.
Hideo：A good work environment is key to productivity, so we try to use machines with the highest specs and the best tools.
Ryoji：Usually everyone is working with their eyes glued to their monitors, but sometimes people will walk around to have a chat, or we'll get together for a meeting. Recently, we set up a gaming corner to try out the latest games together.
We watch whatever videos we want while we work, and there's no special dress code. It's a pretty relaxed atmosphere.
── What does a typical day look like?
Hideo：We start at 10 in the morning and end at 7 in the afternoon. There's a lunch break from 1 P.M. to 2 P.M. We don't have much overtime and usually insist on everyone going home on time. As for the content of the work, there are big projects as well as tons of illustrations to do, and we always have 8 projects revolving among our 26 staff members. We get pretty busy right before a release, but we don't increase work hours, we increase our number of staff members.
Ryoji：Absolutely. Whenever I feel like we're low on people, I go straight to the company and they hire someone right away. You can purchase materials for personal use from the company, but I had the idea that we should set up a communal bookshelf. They listened to my idea right away and set up a bookshelf with everyone's favorites.
Hideo：At bigger companies it's difficult for them to listen to the ideas of each and every person, but one of the merits of a smaller organization is that we can listen closely to every individual's needs.
You know the names and faces of everyone around you and develop really smooth communication with your peers. Right now we have 26 members, but once we hit 30, I think we'll divide into two groups of 15. I think it's important to keep working in small, tightly knit communities.
Looking at it form the perspective of responsibilities, if your personal workload decreases too much, so does your motivation. When the final work comes out, it can really impact your sense of accomplishment.
Ryoji：I truly feel valued here. They have regular consultations about twice a year. I'm really able to speak my mind there. Everyone working here is famous in the gaming industry, but once you sit down and talk with them, they're very easy going people.
Hideo：All the personalities here are very unique, so they're easy to talk to. There are a lot of people who have been in the gaming industry for a long time, so you can learn a bunch from them.
Ryoji：If anything, I'm the exception to all that.
Hideo：You're exceptionally cheeky, haha. But for more sensitive people, we want to value your personal lifestyle and take care of you.
Ryoji：Speaking of which, didn't the company president once personally paint a welcome sign for the wedding of a staff member?
It's okay to excel in just one skill, like painting? Their ideal applicant
── How many people are you looking to hire at the moment?
Hideo：From our calculations for next year, we found that we'll be short by 8.6 people. We'll be judging potential hires based on the design sense and artistic ability displayed in their portfolio. If we want to see more, we'll sometimes ask applicants to complete a design prompt. For example, prompts might be something like: "Imagine you had to design a new character for this game" or "Paint something similar to this work" and so on. We want to see if you can work well with others and follow instructions.
── What are you looking for in a portfolio?
Hideo：It's easier for us if you include some work that suits the style of projects our company has worked on. Basically, a lot of the work coming into our company is in the fantasy genre. It's great if you can draw fantasy, and we're not hung up on a particular style, because we like seeing varying tastes.
Ryoji：I applied at a lot of companies, but didn't have enough work to fill out a portfolio, so I just used the same artwork every time.
── What kind of person are you looking to hire?
Hideo：People who are aware that it takes a lot of different people to complete one project. For example, for the illustrations in a novel, there are many players who could be called designers, like the author or editor. It's important to recognize that the final illustration wouldn't exist without their input. A work isn't finished just by drawing a picture by yourself. Rather, we want people who are able to work well in a team.
Also, we want people with at least a minimum of communication skills. Like, if someone says good morning to you, you say good morning back. Or you contact the company before you take a sick day. About that level is just fine.
── That really is the bare minimum.
Hideo：As far as technical skill, too, our hurdles are pretty low.
Ryoji：I don't care about things like personality or communication skill. More than that, I'm looking forward to bringing in people who are better at artwork than me.
Hideo：No, you should be getting better yourself, haha. It's fine if you're not that skilled yet, as long as you're willing to learn. If you want to grow by joining our company and move on to something else, then that's just fine with us. Sometimes people don't notice their progress while they're here, but when they leave they notice how much they've grown.
Ryoji：You don't have to be able to do everything, but it's great if you have something you're especially great at. I personally would love to see more applicants who are great at painting. I'm terrible at painting, so I'm waiting to hear from someone who's great at it, even if they're not very good with design.
Hideo：To take one illustration to completion, it goes all the way from the rough sketch to painting to the final touches. Depending on the project, you might do all of those steps yourself, but sometimes we divide it up into tasks. So, for example, if you're good at painting but not line art, or vice versa, you'd do just fine here. From the time you join the company you'll gradually learn new skills. Also, we're currently interested in people who are skilled at background design.
── Are you also hiring people from outside the gaming industry?
Hideo：Of course, we also welcome applicants who have never worked in the gaming industry. We have a staff member who worked many years as a freelance illustrator, doing things like illustrations for novels. We have some people working here who graduated from trade schools focused on game creation, but we've also hired people like Ryoji, who studied industrial design in college, or people who studied at fine arts colleges, like one staff member who graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts. Some of the board members come from the advertising industry. We're not specifically looking for new graduates, so of course experience is a plus. But, if you're confident in your skill but lack experience, we still encourage you to apply.
Apply for CyDesignation here!
This company is for artists who want to work with geniuses and take their art to the next level.
For details and requirements regarding this position, please visit CyDesignation's Recruit page.
CyDesignation's official pixiv account!
Check out their amazing illustrations, made by professional artists working on the front line of the gaming industry.
If seeing those incredible illustrations has you thinking, "I've got to work there!" take a look at their recruiting information, listed above.
Ryoji's drawing challenge video!
Can you believe the quality of this drawing, made in only a minute? This is just a taste of skill at CyDesignation.
They're waiting for applications from artists striving to push themselves past their limits!