Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Interview with Yu Suzuki by Nagai Industries | Gamescom 2019

We're very pleased to share a new interview that was held with Yu Suzuki at Gamescom 2019 by a passionate Shenmue fan known in the community as Nagai Industries, who in doing so brought a long-held goal of interviewing Yu to reality.

About the author:
Nagai Industries can be found on Twitter and is an indie game developer inspired by the Yu Suzuki's teachings and a freelance journalist.
A Russian-language version of this interview article has also been published on and can be viewed here.

This interview would not have happened without the enormous support of the Shenmue community, of which I became an active part in 2014, when a friend of mine and I started developing a small Shenmue-inspired game — Lucky Hit Challenge.

At that time, the sequels of forgotten game series were popping up on Kickstarter, one by one. We dreamed that, sooner or later, one of these such sequels would be Shenmue III. In the fall of that year, we released the Lucky Hit Challenge in which the player could win money playing Lucky Hit and spend it on the in-game Shenmue III Kickstarter. This project was warmly received by the audience, and two years later I started developing a new project: the social application #ChawanSign that would generate Shenmue memes in augmented reality. It is this project that soon led me to an interview-meeting with Suzuki.

In Russia, the country where I was born and raised, the Dreamcast has never been a particularly popular console. So, calling yourself a Shenmue fan for all these years seemed like sheer madness, since the number of Russians who were influenced by this game can be counted on the fingers. Of one hand. That perspective shifted in February 2018 when I first arrived at MAGIC, an anime festival held in Monaco.

The release of the third Shenmue installment was expected at the end of that year. I just had to chat with Yu Suzuki before the release. How naive I was! There were hundreds of people like me: ready to stand in line for several hours, with armfuls of discs, consoles, and vinyl records dating from 10-20 years ago. I was in the middle of the line and did not even have time to take pictures with the legendary Shenmue-creator. In the end, Suzuki signed a souvenir mug for me.

Yet, the real treasure was not this autograph. Shenmue fans, who came from all over the world to show respect to the person who gave them an unmatched, unique gaming experience, turned out to be absolutely amazing people. I immediately felt at home among these people, united by a common goal — to achieve the release of Shenmue III and make it as successful as possible.

I prepared thoroughly for the next MAGIC: ordering an exclusive set of clay cups, and then scanning them for #ChawanSign as in-game 3D-objects, thus paying tribute to the method of creating characters for the original game.

During that MAGIC 2019 autograph session, I handed this cup set over to Yu-san. He was pretty enthusiastic about it. He then showcased the new trailer. A conversation between us did not take place. Again.

But I did not lose hope. After that event, there was a trip to the USA, visiting the GDC (Game Developers Conference) and PAX events where I met many other Shenmue fans who helped me tremendously with the #ChawanSign development.

Once I returned to my homeland, the Shenmue III release was again delayed. It was a sign. It became clear that this was the last chance to talk with Yu Suzuki, to ask him essential questions. From that moment, real life began to resemble Shenmue gameplay: a lot of dialogues with friends and new acquaintances from around the world that gradually were leading me to my cherished goal. And thus I flew to Germany to attend Gamescom.

On the day of the interview, the organization of which had already been a challenge, fate threw one last test at me: our slot turned out to be occupied by another journalist. Everything almost went to pieces due to an error in the schedule. As an apology, Deep Silver suggested that we play a fresh game build, something that was not planned originally. My day was almost ruined at that point, and I was afraid of the worst — that the game would not live up to my expectations.

But all my doubts were unfounded. With every minute I spent behind the screen, I realized that this was the very game, the very atmosphere, the very music, the very gameplay for which we had been waiting for 18 years. It was a miracle, an ultimate emotion, the most beautiful of events, like meeting an old friend who turns out to be alive, well and radiating joy, just like two decades ago.

In the last minutes of my demo playthrough, another miracle happened: our interview slot was restored and scheduled for 2 days later. Compared to the 2 years that I had been waiting for this interview and the 18 years spent waiting for Shenmue III, those 48 hours were like a blink of an eye.

So we waited, recorded the interview, and then translated it from Japanese thanks to Switch of the Phantom River Stone blog. The result of this long work is before you. Enjoy!

Interview with Yu Suzuki at Gamescom 2019

Is the Chawan Sign mechanic something you thought up?

It's something I researched. I carried out research on various things about China, and somewhere it talked about how it had been historically used for coded communications, you see.

Was the Chawan Sign actually used by martial artists?

It’s something I looked up 20 years ago, so... I don’t remember.

In one of your interviews you’ve mentioned that games are 50% business and 50% art. What is the ratio between them in case of Shenmue 3?

I forget exactly what I said for the previous games, but what I always aim to do is to make something that consists of 50% technology and 50% how it makes you feel. Also 50% is experimenting with new ideas and 50% is for the players. That’s my usual approach. This time, however, it’s 70% for the backers who are my clients, with the remaining 30% being for trying new things.

What do you think makes Shenmue 3 unique in today’s video game market?

For a start, there are no other games like Shenmue on the market. It’s really unique. Nowadays, most of the video games have become extremely fast-paced. Events occur with rapid timing, and they are full of action: shooting people and killing… it’s like an emotional roller coaster in many ways. So, in comparison to other games Shenmue may feel quite slow: you could say it’s a “slow-paced life” where you can relax and take things easy. It’s like having a bath and spending an hour, just taking your time. Playing Shenmue that way will bring out its true qualities.

Some of my favorite moments in Shenmue were the mini-games: kung-fu training, visiting the barbershop, etc. Will we see moments like this in Shenmue 3?

Yes, you will.

The first two Shenmue installments were famous for striving for perfection. Giving the limited budget you’re unlikely to be able to force [Takeshi] Hirai-san to program the telephone cable for two weeks. With Shenmue 3, which elements of the game have you spent most of the time polishing to perfection?

Those parts of Shenmue 1 in which I invested resources and gave extra attention, and the areas I chose to focus on for Shenmue 2 and Shenmue 3, are all different from one another. In order to make the best game possible, I adjust its composition to suit the staff at that time, the [programming] libraries at that time, and the conditions at that time.

With Shenmue 3 this time, some of the areas that I’ve particularly focused on are building interconnections between items, as there are a great many; creating an economy that’s balanced; and incorporating Skill Books into the player loop. I’ve carefully built connections between various elements.

How much did you enjoy the modern game development process and what do you think about Kickstarter? Did you like it? Is it different from working with SEGA in the 90s?

It’s completely different. When I was at SEGA, before a release we tried not to give away any information about it. We’d distribute information from around 3 to 6 months beforehand, but until then we didn’t share any at all. With the Kickstarter, you have backer reports, so you have to keep backers updated with timely reports on the progress.

For me, the thing that was most constraining was that once you say something, you are obliged to do it.

The way I work is to try making something and then to choose the best outcome; try making something and choosing the best outcome… so things change as I go. Promising things up-front is extremely stressful for me.

Also, at SEGA I created the graphics engine from scratch so I knew it well. This time, I used one called Unreal Engine 4, which is a great engine but in a sense it’s a “black box” so making fine adjustments turned out to be tricky.

The Shenmue community is known for its kindness and goodwill. For the past 4 years, it supported all your decisions, even the most controversial ones. Was it a surprise for you how players reacted to Epic games exclusivity deal? How did you feel about it? And what might you want to say to these people?

[Answered by a representative of Deep Silver Publishing]:
Regarding Epic Games, Yu Suzuki and I think the Kickstarter page has all the necessary information, and this question does not need additional comments.

Besides Shenmue, one of my favorite pieces of entertainment is Twin Peaks. I've found many similarities between them: both are detective stories which start with a murder in a tightened community where everybody knows each other, and which expands beyond that. Supernatural powers are the great mystery in both, and they help the main protagonist to find the truth. The second season of Twin Peaks ended on the similar compelling cliffhanger as Shenmue 2, and we've got the sequel only 25 years later. Have you ever watched Twin Peaks and have you noticed this similarity?

No, I haven’t seen it, but I’d like to have a look. Is it on Netflix?

It’s on Showtime.

Thanks, I'll check!

One of my acquaintances once told me that Shenmue 3 is a beautiful game, but he doesn’t know how to approach it, because he missed the first two parts. What would you recommend to people like him?

It’s made so that you can enjoy it even if you haven’t played Shenmue 1 and 2. It contains a recap movie, and there are also flashback scenes within the game.

For those who are interested in the first two games, they have now been re-released by SEGA so I’d be happy if people tried them.

Shenmue 3 has a unique and slow-paced world, something which can’t be experienced in any other game. It will soothe your soul a little.

Have you ever considered coming to Russia for a conference or just for fun?

I’ve never been before (except maybe in transit), but I’d like to.

There are a lot of conferences, so you should come!

Thank you.

Many thanks to Nagai Industries for contributing this great article and interview.
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