Friday, November 29, 2019

[Part 1] Shenmue Discussion with Yu Suzuki & Developers | IGN Japan

To commemorate the release of Shenmue 3 earlier this month, IGN Japan's Esra Krabbe spoke with key members of the development team, who were all also on the project team for the first two games: creator and game director Yu Suzuki, animation producer Hiroaki Takeuchi and second director Keiji Okayasu.

In this post we share some of the highlights of the discussion. Due to length, we will split this over a number of parts. A link to the video can be found at the end of this post.

Early Concept Art

Displayed on the table are folders containing some colored concept sketches. Yu Suzuki comments that these were created during development of the original Shenmue games, with some being from the start of the project which began "4 to 5 years" prior to the release of the first game in 1999. The figure wearing Chinese-style martial arts clothing is Akira from Virtua Fighter, as the idea at that time was to make him the main character in a story centered around Chinese martial arts - indeed, Yu Suzuki wrote a set of scripts that encapsulated the story, called "The Legend of Akira".

The illustrations at which the folder is open show him as a young boy of junior high school student age, and Yu explains that this is because he was debating whether it was to be a game in which the protagonist grows older (for example, starting as 10 years old, and growing older until he reaches 45) or one where he stays the same age. These illustrations were for the "growing older" case, imagining him as a child.

Keiji Okayasu's First Involvement

Keiji Okayasu was one of the very first team members for the first Shenmue, for which he was game director: "Yu told me to make Virtua Fighter RPG for the Saturn," he recollects. The team size started off small - around 5 people, Yu confirms - and at first it was an experimental process in the form of a prototype called The Old Man and the Peach Tree. "As well as that, very early on I remember experimenting with building systems such as one for automatically creating mazes." He attributes the reason for Yu selecting him for the project being due to his extensive background in developing for the Sega Saturn (notably including Virtua Fighter) together with his experience in building an RPG (Rent A Hero, released only in Japan) helping to set himself apart from other developers in AM2.

"AM2 consisted largely of people who wanted to make arcade games - the 'A' of AM2 stands for Amusement, after all," adds Yu. When asked whether perhaps the development group might not have been particularly interested in making a game like Shenmue, Yu agrees that back then, when arcade hardware was vastly superior to home consoles, developers felt a strange sense of pride - a situation which has changed nowadays, where hardware at home can equal or surpass that of arcade games.

Yu Suzuki and Games of the Time

"Although I hardly play any games, when it comes to creating one I do take a quick look at the competitors' games. I feel I should." 

Yu explains that he tried playing out a few of their most well-known parts, but he soon got tired of them and stopped playing. He felt dissatisfied at things like the way his character couldn't speak with others unless facing them directly, or why he couldn't walk diagonally. "I don't play games myself, so I always ended up comparing them to the real world, you see".

Hiroaki Takeuchi and the Concept Movie

Animation producer Hiroaki Takeuchi, who is credited as Game Adviser for the first Shenmue, was also an early member of the original development team.

Takeuchi recounts that animation producer Koji Morimoto was hired, and they worked together to create a concept film based on Yu's descriptions. "It was a prototype movie," says Takeuchi.

The Old Man and the Peach Tree

"Yu showed me The Old Man and the Peach Tree, saying that he wanted to make something like that. I didn't have a clue what he meant!" recalls Takeuchi. "But I remember Yu-san had formed a very clear idea of his concept."

"The Old Man and the Peach Tree was the first, experimental project", says Yu, tracing the kanji character for "peach" in the air with his finger as he speaks.

Storyline of The Old Man and the Peach Tree (slide from Yu Suzuki's GDC 2014 talk)
This prototype demonstrated the feasibility of features that would later be incorporated into Shenmue, such as characters you could speak to, and who walked around based on a set schedule. There was also a quest you could carry out, and "a kind of" battle.

"It looked like it would work out technically, so I moved on to Virtua Fighter RPG."

Conveying the Concept

Yu relates that after the decision had been made to start the project proper, he found that the members of the project team weren't able to grasp what he was trying to do.

"The industry didn't have directors, or people experienced at motion capture - it was a new concept. Games didn't have things like voiced lines or acting. So to implement it, I gathered people from various different industries: a movie person, a scriptwriter, a novelist and so on".

However, this resulted in a communication problem, as the experts all used different industry-specific terminology and specialist language. "They couldn't understand what I was trying to say at all".

In order to make it easier to understand for everyone in the team, Yu wrote the story in the form of a novel with the classic four-part narrative structure of Introduction, Development, Twist and Conclusion. In addition, he expressed it musically, composing a four-movement symphony.

"I asked myself what would be a form that everyone would understood in common - and that was music and story."

Okayasu confesses that he can't recall these, however Takeuchi, on the other hand, does: "I remember. My first impression was how grand it was, a human drama".

A Different Approach

In terms of what separated Shenmue from other games of the time, Okayasu comments jokingly that game players of the time took for granted certain limitations in games, Yu didn't share that same understanding (this statement causes the group to chuckle).

"I couldn't help thinking that, instead of spending so much development time [on implementing those small details], wouldn't it be more fun to include an extra quest? Yu had a different way of seeing things."

Shenmue on the Saturn

How far did development progress on the Saturn?

"It performed pretty well, for a Saturn", Yu says.

"For a Saturn, the quality was impressive. Although in terms of content, it was really just the first part," Okayasu adds, indicating with his hands. 

Yu thinks otherwise with respect to this last statement: "Well, not just the first part. I had a look the other day, and it went a pretty long way. It went as far as Guilin, after all".

Although significant work had been put into the Saturn version, the decision was made to remake it for the new Dreamcast console.

"That was tough", reflects Okayasu. He explains that in fact this would be its second remake. The team had already remade it once in order to run on a Saturn that had been specially expanded with an acceleration board. "Then a while after that, we were told that a new console would be coming out, so to move onto that. We were like, 'Are you serious?'" he says, with a rueful chuckle.

"Magic" Systems

To save data space, several auto-generation systems were developed: Magic Weather, Magic Rooms, Magic Maze, which required very little data. Yu points out that it was thanks to these new systems that each game was able to fit on just a few discs.

The Scope of Shenmue 1

Had Yu always planned for Shenmue 1 to cover only the part of the story set in Yokosuka?

"When I turned it into a game, I didn't expect it would have so much content," says Yu. He explains that the various team leads would come up with various good ideas, for example mixing in FREE gameplay rather than a long series of cut scenes. As a result, the amount of gameplay increased rapidly, to such an extent that it would no longer fit. "And so, in the end, it became Shenmue 1".

"What I had really planned right back at the beginning, for the Saturn, was to have just a Volume 1 and a Volume 2, and that would be it. Look how that changed!"

Okayasu confirms that Shenmue development was carried out simultaneously on several sections, working on the series as a whole rather than one game at a time:

"We worked on Shenmue 2 at the same time as Shenmue 1," he nods. "At first, we didn't intend to finish [the first game] at Yokosuka".

"We had been prepared to go through to Guilin," adds Yu. "But it kept growing and growing!"

Watch the full video here (Japanese): IGN Japan

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  1. I'm reading the parts here before watching the video, this is all very interesting. I hope that someday Yu-san will release the original script Legend Of Akira in the form of a novel, i want to read the original script so much, i hope Yu-san can make Shenmue 4, i love Shenmue so much. Thanks for sharing this with us, Switch.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm also very curious to see the original script. I think it was one of the very high-level Kickstarter rewards, so hopefully this will be something that can be shared with fans in the future.