Saturday, June 16, 2018

[Part 1/2] "15 Secrets of Shenmue" 1999 interview with Yu Suzuki | Translation

Today's post is a translation of an interview Yu Suzuki held with the media on 18th January 1999, soon after the successful Shenmue premiere events. Shenmue was still somewhat shrouded in mystery, so the "15 Secrets" this article refers to - while not representing special in-game secrets or the like - are an interesting reflection of what the expectations were for the game as well as Yu Suzuki's mindset almost a year before its actual release.

This topic was selected by Phantom River Stone patrons in the monthly poll for April.

Source article: February 12th, 1999 edition of Dreamcast Magazine.

The interview was held on 18th January 1999 at the final press conference of the nationwide Shenmue premiere events that were held in Japan's 5 largest cities (Yokohama, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo and Nagoya) as well as Sendai.

SECRET ① Looking back on the nationwide premiere...

"We haven't all met like this since the premiere in Yokohama, have we!"

These are the words with which Yu Suzuki greets us as he appears in front of us prior to the start of the interview.

The footage shown at the premiere was the first time video of Shenmue has been released, and we are eager for his response to our various opinions after seeing it - our impressions, things we'd like to ask about, things that puzzle us... That was the strong sentiment among the gathered journalists.

As a result, the press conference lasted for as long as two-and-a-half hours, and out of that Dreamcast Magazine was able to elicit 15 responses from Yu Suzuki.

In this article, we'll follow the flow of the conference that day as we reveal each of these secrets you wanted to know about Shenmue, one at a time.

Firstly, his impressions after having finished the nationwide premiere.

"Personally, I wanted as many people as possibly to see this premiere, so right from the start I chose to hold it 3 times in Yokohama. I wanted at least to avoid the situation of people not being able to get in, after paying a train fare to come along, you see. So I was of the mindset that none of the venues had to be fully booked out. Of course, if all the seats had been exactly filled that would have been best though [laughs].

"But doing a nationwide premiere itself was really my first time, so there were a lot of things I couldn't completely foresee... Depending on the venue, some don't allow standing, and at others running additional events isn't possible. But I'm really happy that we had more than 100% attendance at the last three venues, and nationwide more than 30,000 people attended".

If it had been for the sequel to a famous title it would be one thing, but for an absolutely original title, reaching this level of attendance is indeed astonishing. We can say undoubtedly that the premiere ended up a huge success.

SECRET ② Are there plans the premiere video to go on sale or be broadcast on TV etc?

There were rumors on BBS [bulletin board system] posts and elsewhere that the video shown in the cities of Osaka, Fukuoka and the remaining 3 venues had been modified, but when asked about that, Yu-san's response was:

"No, they were the same".

He explained that firstly, an outline of the content of the video to be shown at the regional premiere venues was decided, and at the Yokohama event these were linked together in real time by the MCs and others. Apparently there were messages on the BBS boards saying that the Yokohama event was "in a different class", but considering that there were special guests at the regional events - offering the chance to interact up close - and that any lack of live segments in the regional events was compensated by their flow being easier to follow, we don't think you can say that either one had the upper hand.

However, with such comprehensive video in existence covering how it was made through to an explanation of the game, we wish it could be seen by not just 30,000 people but even more...

"About that, right now we're holding a survey (on the internet). The release of the soundtrack CD on April 1 is pretty much confirmed, but with the premiere video it's not so straight-forward. If a lot of people say they would buy it I think we could release it, but on the other hand if it were to be shown on TV then I think the timing of when to do it, factoring in the game's release date, is also an important factor to consider. And at the moment a release date for spring is a bit dubious". [smiles wryly]
Shenmue BBS questionnaire.
"Shenmue BBS questionnaire. Will this decide whether the premiere video will be released?"
I see. But, Yu-san, if you were to do a 2-hour Dreamcast special on TV in a prime 2-hour time slot on a Saturday or Sunday, I think it would be really effective. I don't think I'm the only one who thinks so!

We want a lot more people to experience the emotion felt by those who went to the premiere.
"We want a lot more people to experience the emotion felt by those who went to the premiere. We're eager for it to be put on video or on a TV broadcast!"

  • Note from Switch: a 14-minute video of the Shenmue premiere event in Yokohama can be viewed below (with English captions which I contributed a few years ago). Although a much longer video also exists online, it is highly compressed / low-resolution, and to date attempts by fans to locate a high-quality version have not been successful.

SECRET ③ What is the current state of development?

So, we heard Yu-san say the words "a release date for spring is a bit dubious", so to be frank I wonder what the current state of development is like..?

"Actually, I haven't made a firm decision on exactly what I will do. Right now work is progressing on each of the parts, and it's going so well that with another month's work we'll be much further along - although how far, I can't say. Of course, for those parts that I can see have more-or-less reached the right point, work has started on blending them within the game; but for the parts that are still being extended, I want to see how they go for a little while more.

"So, at the present stage I don't want to compromise and harvest the growing shoots at a uniform 'height'. To put it in terms of climbing Mt Fuji, I often say we're probably somewhere between the 6th and 7th stations [note from Switch: Mt Fuji has 10 rest stations in total], but we can set our final goal even higher. In order to produce something I'll be completely satisfied with, it may take a little while longer."

Is it just me who thinks that, if we get to see graphics made from going that far, then I'm happy to wait just a bit longer?

Each piece of work built on the next, in a monumental series of trial-and-error.
"Each piece of work built on the next, in a monumental series of trial-and-error. Starting around 3 years ago a huge number of image boards have been made for the completely original creation that is Shenmue.
The characters, the game world, the setting... the direction for these was decided after numerous remakes.
The characters, the game world, the setting... the direction for these was decided after numerous remakes. And now, the final touches are soon to be put on the direction of the game part..."
Shenhua: no comprise was permitted for her character's creation.
"Shenhua: no comprise was permitted for her character's creation. Her picture was brought to life from the canvas".

  • Note from Switch: some of the images above can also be seen in the below footage from the Game Developers Conference 2000 (video hosted by Shenmue Master's YouTube channel).

SECRET ④ What kind of game do you want it to be?

There are some who aren't really sure what kind of game Shenmue will be, but Yu-san replied to us as follows when we asked, "In what ways will this game be able to be enjoyed?"

"Hm, it's... the destiny of the RPG - or to put it another way, with a story-based game, as you get to know the story your motivation decreases, right? With games like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Striker, even half a year after their release, their sales are still strong but with an RPG, after release their stories are revealed in magazines and so on, so their sales are determined in the 3 weeks after their release. So, what I think would be great to make if possible is a game like Little Computer People. Something like raising a goldfish in a goldfish bowl. I think that will make for a game you'll want to play again and again, not one you stop playing after finding out the story".

Little Computer People: a game released for the Apple II in 1985
Little Computer People: a game released for the Apple II in 1985 where you raise and observe humans in a miniature house on your computer screen.

SECRET ⑤ The secret of the amazing graphics is in the custom tool!

An astonishing video clip from Shenmue shows a scene of petals drifting from blossoms in full bloom, changing its appearance with every second as it is combined with changes in the weather conditions. We sense its potential, and wonderment at the fact that this vivid scene, which doesn't feel strange even as a movie, is rendered in real time. What's more, it's said to be produced on an actual Dreamcast console, so our amazement grows at an accelerating rate. So then, where on earth could the secret of these graphics lie?

"I wouldn't exactly call it a secret, but we're making use of a special tool. But it's an engine that we have tuned tightly, specifically for making Shenmue. Normally there are things called "libraries", but libraries are fundamentally built to be all-purpose and to handle anything. But what we're using is a customized tool that just has to be able to make Shenmue. And so, we avoid calling it a "library", since we've specialized the tool to make it optimal for making Shenmue. Therefore, some people ask to be given the Shenmue engine, but there's probably not much point in that. Even if you're given it, it may not even run."

So the secret of the awe-inspiring graphics of Shenmue is in a super-customized specialized tool.

The magic of expressing an ever-changing world.
"The magic of expressing an ever-changing world. This is thanks to the power of the software".
For Shenmue, the emotional state of the player was simulated by creating an Emotion Chart.
"For Shenmue, the emotional state of the player was simulated by creating an Emotion Chart. This supplemented the scenarios which were adjusted multiple times".
A nerve-racking plank crossing inside an abandoned building.
"A nerve-racking plank crossing inside an abandoned building. The reality of the setting that has been built is amplified through its creative implementation".

SECRET ⑥ What do you think about the rival (?) Final Fantasy series?

Next we tried putting a slightly mean question to him. What does Yu-san think about the TV commercials for Final Fantasy VIII that are being shown frequently on TV right now? In response, Yu-san initially replies:

"I haven't been home very often, so I haven't seen the commercials yet [laughs]".

but goes on to add:

"I saw the FFVIII trailer in front of Square's booth at the Tokyo Game Show last year, and to be honest I thought it was wonderful. Speaking seriously, even if you went to Hollywood you'd be hard-pressed to make a movie that would top it."

Japanese commercial for Final Fantasy VIII

That's right, Yu Suzuki expresses respect for Square's Hironobu Sakaguchi: the quality and presentation of the CG, and his abilities as a producer who commands a staff of several hundred people... However, after giving recognition to this, he says the following.

"For example, whether it be Disney's Toy Story or Square, in order to produce that movie, it takes around 6 hours of ray tracing and rendering per frame (an image displayed for 1/60 of a second). It would probably be difficult to produce the work rendered in real time like Shenmue does. In which case, I'd say where we hold our own is inside a game: the way in which the graphics in Shenmue comer alive under real time operation, not merely being shown scenes.

"Of course, if we were also able to spend 4 to 5 hours on rendering one frame, we could show you an exceptionally high level of graphics! However, what I'm trying to do with Shenmue is different. I don't think the two should be compared".

That makes sense.

SECRET ⑦ Advances in hardware and software: how many discs will Shenmue have?

Mixed in with talking about FFVIII, Yu-san brings up a couple of topics: how many discs Shenmue will have, and the point that Shenmue's graphics were achieved not because of advances in hardware but by the level of software pursued and achieved by his staff.

This is something that I as a journalist also want to say: there's a somewhat mistaken belief that "Yu Suzuki's works are amazing because the hardware is amazing". In fact, below the surface it's thanks to the level of the software created through blood, sweat and tears that results in these matchless graphics. This is something I really want everyone to comprehend. Yu Suzuki is not a "hardware person", but without doubt a "software person".

"For example, to make Shenmue with conventional technologies, I'd say it would exceed 100 discs! [laughs] Even given that the Dreamcast's GD-ROMs are double density, there'd be no way for it all to fit. For now, I think one disc per chapter would be ideal, but we're putting in ceaseless efforts on a daily basis on the software side to try to achieve that. I'd like people to be aware, even if only an inkling, of that."

Such are the unseen efforts of the Shenmue staff; their "dream" lies ahead.

SECRET ⑧ The pursuit of reality, not realism

"With Shenmue, I want to achieve reality, not realism. What I'm trying to do differs from something that's real". 

When the question came up of why Yokosuka was chosen as the first setting of the game, the conversation turns to a keyword that points to how Yu Suzuki approaches the way he makes his works.

Yokosuka: Yu Suzuki's choice of setting for the first game.
Yokosuka: Yu Suzuki's choice of setting for the first game. (Photo by Switch).
"I think if you choose somewhere like Kyoto or Tokyo as a setting, for example, then the smallest thing can cause the feeling that something is really off. And so, even for the main setting of China, we created Kowloon with a form resembling a fortress because that gives more of a feeling of tension as you venture inside. Therefore, I'm not looking to replicate something real, but rather to create a reality.

"Also, after speaking with people like Hiroshi Fujioka [note from Switch: the Japanese actor who voices Iwao Hazuki and has a cameo in Shenmue advertising an energy drink], I think that people from Japan who are recognized around the world aren't people who have thrown Japan away, but rather people who have kept a firm grasp of Japan within them. So, with this game too, I wanted to make Japan the departure point, and for the times I want to spotlight Japan, Yokosuka - not Kyoto or Kamakura - is a perfect fit.

"I had the feeling that it will allow me to properly express the main character of Ryo and the essence of the true Japanese man. And, being a naval port originally, it's full of interesting people and shops".

Charm that is derived from reality... We're sure to see a lot of this kind of charm in the game itself.

  • Note from Switch: this theme of a "reality" vs being "realistic" is one that Yu Suzuki brought up again recently in this interview with Japanese 4Gamer at Gamescom 2017. It is fascinating to see that he has stayed true to this approach for Shenmue III, all these years later.

--- Translated by Switch @ ---

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