Sunday, December 8, 2019

[Part 2] Shenmue Discussion with Yu Suzuki & Developers | IGN Japan

This is the second part of a 3-part summary of a video interview with three key members of the development team for Shenmue 3 who were also core project members in the earlier titles: creator and game director Yu Suzuki, animation producer Hiroaki Takeuchi and second director Keiji Okayasu. The interview was held by IGN Japan's Esra Krabbe.

The Boat Chapter

When asked about the legendary chapter that takes place on the boat from Yokosuka to Hong Kong, Yu Suzuki is slightly wary. "I don't want to say too much, since I may make some use of it later," he says with a smile. "During the journey various incidents and encounters take place on board.".
Official Shenmue Side Story "Chai & Ryo"
Takeuchi adds: "The scenario has been written as a base, but that won't simply be used as it is. We would then add things to it like fun gameplay elements and so on, while thinking of the overall balance".

Gameplay Over Graphics 

Takeuchi explains that with creations that aren't games, they draw people in through things like their visuals, their direction, and an interesting story. Similarly, at the time the first Shenmue were made, graphics in games were limited, so what was important was how the player interacts and how they become involved in the gameplay.

Adds Suzuki: "When it comes to graphics quality, there's no way we could compete with a 2-hour length film. Whereas they might be able to spend three or four hours rendering a single frame, we have to process everything 200,000 times faster. But while we were at a disadvantage there, being an RPG the way that we could stand out was with a game that slowly permeates across its 50 hours".

The Significance of Naming

"When the core development members were wondering to ourselves about what kind of game it was to be, Yu-san put forward the term 'FREE'. I thought that really fitted well," says Takeuchi. "The game we were trying to make wasn't one that had existed before then, but something that was completely new."

The acronym FREE (for "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment") is a name that Suzuki chose, but he comments with a laugh that he "overdid a bit". "It's fine as far as the 'Full Reactive' part, but for the rest... I had to find something to fit each of the letters, you see!"

It would seem that Yu Suzuki has a fondness for putting a name to his systems, such as "Magic Weather" and so on.

Takeuchi responds: "Without naming a system in that way, the other developers on the team wouldn't have had the awareness that we were doing something new".

Suzuki agrees. "Giving things a name is important. That's what gives things an identity. Someone once said that, without giving something a name, it will get lost in time, just as if it never existed".

"I have been playing a lot of open-world games recently," says Takeuchi, "and I really want to emphasize here that I don't think Shenmue is open-world. Shenmue is its own genre, and even now I think that its genre is FREE."

One new system that has been incorporated into Shenmue 3 is the Point of Interest (POI) system. The large town of Niaowu contains a large number of shops, and Suzuki explains that having all the non-playable characters visit any of the shops would not be very realistic. Instead, each of the characters has been given their own set of interests, which align with their grouping (such as their age, gender and so on) - a young person might be unlikely to visit Buddhist stores for example, but might instead be interested in stores that sell jewelry.

Wouldn't creating individual interests for each of the hundreds of characters in the town have been a next-to-impossible task?

Yu smiles and says, "It depends on how you see it. If thinking about aspects like this is something you find enjoyable, then things have a way of getting done! It was an even bigger job in the past though, where every system had to be built from nothing. Nowadays, it is more about how to adjust existing systems."

Okayasu's Participation in Shenmue 3

Keiji Okayasu, who was sub-director for Shenmue I and II, describes how he came to be involved in the development of Shenmue 3.

"I wasn't involved at all, in the beginning. I saw the announcement on the internet, just like everyone else, although I had heard rumors".

In the following six months, the project Okayasu had been working on wound up, and so he sent Suzuki an email to offer help with Shenmue 3. However, initially, no response was forthcoming.

"He hadn't read my mail, and so I didn't get any reply," says Okayasu, gesturing to Suzuki with a laugh.

However, on trying again a month later, this time Suzuki called him back immediately - and asked him to start the following day.

"He was definitely the person I most wanted to work with, but the reason I didn't reach out to him was because I figured that he was in an important position, and I didn't for the life of me imagine he would be able to join the team," explains Suzuki, referring to Okayasu's position as president of his own company (studiofake).

Okayasu, for his part, had not anticipated working on the third game.

"I was with Sega for about 14 or 15 years, but Shenmue was the toughest thing I ever worked on there."

"Me too!" interjects Suzuki.

Okayasu had originally planned just to look forward to Shenmue 3 as a fan this time.

"Having been involved with the first two games, and knowing somewhat what it would be about, I really just wanted to enjoy it as a player," Okayasu confesses.

However his conscience told him to contact Suzuki to see how the development was going. "He was worried whether things were going okay or not," confirms Suzuki.

Suzuki welcomed back the former development team member with open arms:

"I remember at one of the first meetings we had after I joined," relates Okayasu."I didn't really know what was going on, but I was asked to give my opinion about something, and Suzuki seemed delighted, saying 'He really gets Shenmue!'"

The Origin of "Find Chōbu-chan"

Players of Shenmue 3 will be familiar with the way that a mascot bird character named Chōbu-chan has been hidden somewhere in every one of the 140 or so shops.

This came about from something that Okayasu had wanted to do since the original Shenmue games.

"The landscape of Shenmue 1 and 2 were both built with great realism, with none of the typical shortcuts taken such as copy-and-pasting elements around due to Suzuki's intense dislike of such practices. It was amazing, but all you could really do with it was to look at it, which felt a bit of a shame. Back then I had wanted to make more use of it by having some kind of treasure hunt or something, and also proposed it during Shenmue 3 development. Things like this often take a back seat to the main story, but in this case it seems Suzuki may had been working on it quietly and one day he suddenly said to me, 'It's ready, have a look'!"

Regarding the choice of the mascot's name, Suzuki had given some thought as to what to call it. Then during development someone suggested that, since the town's name in Japanese was Chōbu, why not just go with that.

"I said, 'That'll do!'" says Suzuki. (The Japanese diminutive suffix of "-chan" was added to give Chōbu-chan).

Takeuchi comments that when he first heard about Chōbu-chan, he was a bit dubious as to whether it fitted Shenmue's world. But on realizing that it had a proper explanation and reason for existing within the world (as a mascot for the Niaowu tourism association), he was convinced.

Suzuki chuckles as he recalls one proposed hiding place for Chōbu-chan that he had to forbid: "At one point, Chōbu-chan was to be fried in a frying pan. I said, 'Please don't fry Chōbu-chan! That's going one step too far.'"

The Wooden Dummy Café

One of the more unusual shops in Niaowu is a café at which Ryo can drink tea with wooden dummies. Was this unique idea something that Suzuki came up with himself?

Suzuki confirms this with a nod. "But, you know, when I looked into it, I found that a wooden dummy cafe does exist, somewhere over in Yokohama I think it is".

This causes laughter and comments of disbelief from the group. Suzuki goes on to clarify that in the real-life shop, the dummies aren't dressed up like they are in the game, however. "They just sort of have wooden dummies standing there".

"At one of our formal weekly meetings, where people report on progress and announce their next steps, Yu-san suddenly said 'I'd like to put in a wooden dummy café'",  says Okayasu. "Everyone's mouths fell open".

Takeuchi adds: "Yu-san's sudden proposals can be of two different types. There's the first type, where he has thought everything through thoroughly, considering how it could be implemented technically and so on. Then there's the second type, when he will just come up with an idea because it's something that he's currently interested in. So I was asking myself which type this one was."

"I haven't done all the things I want to do yet. They will have to be for next time," says Suzuki, with a smile.

Watch the full video here (Japanese): IGN Japan

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