YOKOHAMA, Japan — One skinny guy makes World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Kurt Angle sweat. Another checks out WWE Playboy cover model Candice Michelle's body. And in the far corner, a heavyset guy has high-flyer Rey Mysterio nearly frozen. No wrestlers are really around except those who appear, virtually, on monitors. A video game is being made.
On the 12th floor of the Yuke's video game company in Yokohama, a city of 3 million just outside of Tokyo, a team of 80 Japanese game developers has spent the last decade creating a cultural touchstone steeped in the American tradition: WWE wrestling games. And less than three weeks before E3, as they charged ahead on their latest title, the THQ-published "WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2007," they gave MTV News an inside look at a development studio bracing for the big show and the impending summer crunch that will precede the game's fall release.
The team works in an open, brightly lit floor full of cubicles, computers and game-development kits. Entering the room, visitors remove their shoes per Japanese tradition near a rack of slippers, that, not per Japanese tradition, is topped with a skateboard featuring the Rock.
MTV News' tour was less restricted than it would have been in the summer, explained Yuke's producer Hiromi Furuta, the short, self-described "big boss" who keeps her young crew in line. A couple of months later she walled off access to the floor's bunk-bed area, where developers crash during late nights and a season-long stench takes root.
Bunks in the office might not be the only surprise for the Western gamer. Few American gamers would picture this team as the force behind rip-roaring American wrestling games.
Who would expect to find Keiko Zama, decked out in her pink MTV shirt, working on rendering the wrestlers but giggling a confession that her favorite WWE superstars are the referees? She has the action figures and framed signatures to prove it.
Or who would picture another young woman, Chizuru Ogura, in bookish red glasses and a short-sleeve T-shirt over a long one and a plush pig atop her monitor? At her desk, she carefully choreographs one of the estimated 1,200 animations in a game that will have one wrestler bash his opponent's head repeatedly into a ringside barrier.
Red-haired Ryohei Oguma, dubbed "Mr. Goldberg" for his older work on that wrestler, was trying to craft a virtual Kurt Angle. "The hardest part is getting his body shape correct," he said through THQ representative Colin Mack, who served as translator during the tour.
"His neck is very difficult, because [it is] really thick." As Oguma spoke, a TV monitor next to his computer showed the real Kurt Angle getting tossed around by fellow WWE wrestler the Undertaker.
Oguma's a big fan of wrestler Matt Hardy, and most members of the Yuke's staff wear their fandom on their backs, sporting all sorts of WWE gear.
One worker described her thrill when the late Eddie Guerrero visited the Yokohama office and helped her figure out how to animate his ring entrance. The team hasn't met that many WWE superstars, since the game's artists capture likenesses from video reference and motion-capture sessions done when THQ catches the wrestlers on the road.
Less than three weeks before E3, the Xbox 360 build of "SmackDown vs.
Raw" was essentially complete. Yuke's Senior Director Taku Chihaya demonstrated some action, pitting a match between Angle and John Cena, with studio mate Kentaro Arai also on the controls. Arai had a nasty scab on his left arm from a softball game, an uncommon injury only because he is usually banged up from his role as the guy in the office who physically demonstrates wrestling moves for the rest of the team.
On the screen Angle and Cena brawled in the ring and then out, even into the crowd, a feature THQ is touting for this edition. The coup de grâce came from an Angle moonsault — a backward flip — off the top of a ladder and onto Cena, who lay prone on a folding table that snapped from the impact. "Holy sh--, holy sh--," Chihaya said, whispering the cheer wrestling fans make when a performer executes a death-defying maneuver.
Most of the cubicles on the floor are dedicated to PS2 and Xbox 360 development, but at Yuke's, off to the side, two team members had been provided development kits to bring the game to the PS3. Such is the sensitivity of developing for a new system that the kits — essentially super-sized game consoles — were hidden in cardboard boxes. Only a small hole cut for a wire and an illuminated green light indicated that there was some sort of PS3 in there and not, say, a pizza. Toshiyuki Mori, one of the lucky ones on PS3 duty, had just gotten some of the characters and the ring up and running on the hardware. "Every day is busy and stressful," Mori said. "I've felt a lot of pressure, but recently things are coming together."
Off in another corner of the Yuke's floor is a tape library, a hallway about 15-feet deep and five shelves high, full of sequential episodes of WWE shows such as "Raw" and "Velocity." Nearby are the not yet smelly bunks.
Other trappings demonstrated that this studio is not in America. As is common in Tokyo, a sick employee wore a face mask so as not to infect his co-workers. Many workers had their Nintendo DS systems, fitting because those are hot in Japan now as the PlayStation was when it first launched. One had a monitor lined with special Japanese Pepsi bottle caps bearing pixilated models of characters from the first "Super Mario Brothers."
Yuke's doesn't just make wrestling games. The company has developed a puppy simulator for PSP, an adaptation of a comic called "Berserker" for the console and the "Rumble Roses" games featuring skimpily-dressed women wrestlers for Konami. But in Yokohama their hearts clearly belong to the WWE. The rendering of men beating each other up for gamers' enjoyment forges a bridge across cultures that no moonsault is going to break anytime soon.
"WWE SmackDown vs. Raw" is scheduled for release on PlayStation 3, PS2, PSP and Xbox 360 this fall.