Thursday, April 30, 2020

Yu Suzuki Interview: Reflecting on Shenmue III and Future Plans [IGN Japan] | Translation

IGN Japan has published a fantastic new interview with Yu Suzuki, in which he reflects on Shenmue III and goes on to talk about his ideas and thoughts for a potential Shenmue IV. The interview was held by Esra Krabbe in mid-March at the YS Net offices.

The text below is a full (unofficial) translation into English of the original article on IGN Japan.

Good to See Yu Again

In mid-March, I met with Yu Suzuki for the first time in a while. Four months on from Shenmue III’s release, despite there having being no new announcement, I had wriggled my way into an interview.

On entering the YS Net offices, Yu-san greeted me with a friendly smile.

“It’s been a while.”

Of course, what I really wanted to do was to obtain even a small scrap of information about Shenmue IV. But just seeing Yu-san’s smile somehow made me feel happy.

Shenmue has been a great influence on my life, and the realization of Shenmue III after 18 years was an immeasurably significant event. As a game journalist, I followed its progress through to release, traveling to countries such as Monaco, the U.S. and Germany and interviewing Yu-san numerous times. But after the release, such opportunities had dried up.

Yu-san was just the same as ever. He answered my persistent questioning about Shenmue with an unwavering smile, and his comparisons involving racing cars (which are lost on me as I don’t even hold a driving license) reminded me of old times.

Most of all, however, I somehow felt a sense of relief to see him just as full of passion as ever. It turned out that his heart is set on continuing on with Shenmue to take the series towards completion, and there are also many other games he wants to make.

Pleasing Both Fans and Newcomers

YS (Yu Suzuki): The reason I decided to make Shenmue III in the first place is because I was swayed by the call of fans who wanted to hear the next part of the story, even if it were as a novel or manga.

EK (Esra Krabbe, the writer of this article): That’s right! I was also one of them.

YS: The conclusion I reached was that, if there were people who felt that strongly about it, then a very modest version of Shenmue III would be better than nothing. I thought that it would probably have vastly less content than Shenmue I or Shenmue II, but fans were asking for even just the story.

EK: And so you decided to try Kickstarter.
*The Shenmue III Kickstarter campaign was announced at the PlayStation conference at E3 2015. The funding goal amount of two million dollars was exceeded in record time, and the project was successfully launched.

YS: The way it worked was that the project wouldn’t be launched unless two million dollars was reached, but once that was met my responsibility would be triggered and I would have the obligation to create it. The initial promise to the backers was a two-million-dollar Shenmue. But in the end, various partners were found, and I changed the plan numerous times to try to achieve the best result I could, as I continued building it. Ultimately, it reached a scale of probably around 20 million dollars, so an extra zero was gained. [laughs]

EK: An extra zero was gained…in other words, it grew to 10 times the scale that you had originally been anticipating?

YS: Yes. Considering that a full-spec Shenmue was achieved as a result, I personally feel that we did as much as we could possibly do.

EK: And so, no regrets?

YS: They say that if you do everything you can, you won’t have any regrets, so  it’s something close to that. It may fall short in various places compared to other AAA titles, but I put my all into doing what I could.

EK: There have been some reviews, mainly those from overseas, that compare it unfavorably to modern open world games, haven’t there.

YS: Since Shenmue III is completely different from recent trends, I had expected that there would be a fair amount of dissatisfaction from people used to playing recent games. But that’s something that can’t be helped, because I made it for the fans who have supported it with heart and soul for 20 years. Fan satisfaction has been extremely high, which I am really glad about. If there had been more leeway, then as well as making the fans happy I would have put time and money towards the demands of casual players, but making Shenmue III for the fans was as far as I could go.

EK: It really has ended up as a game that picks up from where that heart-touching emotion of 18 years ago left off, without being swayed by modern-day trends, and one that has carried on that same Shenmue feeling. Speaking as a fan, it was the Shenmue I had longed for.

YS: With Shenmue III, I really created it for the fans, but if there’s an opportunity to make a Shenmue IV – which I think there will be – I know what needs to be done in order to satisfy casual gamers, so I’d like to create a game that will also make them happy.

EK: Specifically, what kind of things do you plan to improve?

YS: All sorts of things, such as adding quest markers, enriching the fast travel and time skip functions, and streamlining the user interface. I’d like to deliver a smoother experience for those people who wish to advance rapidly through the story. If it has the same amount of content as Shenmue III, then you’ll be able to move through it about 1.5 times as quickly.

EK: And at the same time, retaining the “Shenmue feel”?

YS: Someone who has conquered the gears and clutch of a racing car would probably resist driving a car that’s fully-automatic with no need for gear-changing techniques, but if it was something more like a semi-automatic, it would suit both types of person, right?

EK: Yes, right.

YS: If I’m the one to make it, then even if it has various changes, I think it will still end up being Shenmue. After all, take Shenmue III, which had a lot of changes. That turned out to feel like Shenmue, right?

EK: Yes indeed, that was without a doubt “Shenmue”.

YS: With Shenmue III, I really responded from my heart to the voice of the fans. So I wasn’t especially aiming to make great profits. However, to stay in business, next time we have to think about making a product that will sell. But the best way to go about it… well, that’s something we’ve been having numerous deep discussions about.

EK: That would be those areas of improvement you mentioned before, wouldn’t it.

YS: How Shenmue III was seen by people who don’t know Shenmue is something that, from a business point of view, needs to be understood, right? And so I analyzed what new gamers weren’t happy with, making various educated guesses about what they meant by their comments and giving them my sincere consideration, although it was painful [laughs]. Making games is my profession, so I’ve looked at things like how much Shenmue diverges from modern trends; which areas should be improved; what the next step should be to make this kind of game, and so on. If people are saying it’s out-of-date, then in what ways: does it just feel that way, or is it really the case? I want to take these on board and make it clear.

EK: I know you don’t normally play games, but do you research titles from other companies for comparison?

YS: I’ve looked at various titles as research. There are a lot of systems that wouldn’t suit Shenmue, but even if they may not work in Shenmue exactly as they are, they have points that can be learned from.

EK: What kind of elements would you like to incorporate in a Shenmue-like way?

YS: With quest markers, I’d like to distinguish between the main quest and side quests, or show money-exchange spots or places you can have battles. But in order not to do away with the need for exploration, I’d like to have a system that doesn’t give too much away, with the display being updated once you have obtained information.

EK: It’s true that in recent games, a lot of the time all you do is follow quest markers, without looking at the playfield.

YS: Also, to make time skip more freely available, I’d like to make it possible to sit on the town benches, and by doing so a wait system would be triggered where you can progress time, for example.

EK: Oh, that sounds great. A lot of fans say they want to be able to sit down in the game, so I think it would indeed kill two birds with one stone.

YS: I’d like to provide for both concepts, not to abandon one or the other. I’ve come to have a good idea of what improvements should be made, so I’ll be able to incorporate them without destroying the taste of the Shenmue series.

EK: You’ve been talking about things new players have been unhappy with, but conversely are there things you’d like to do that fans have been asking for?

YS: Everyone talks about the lack of throw moves, so I’ll be putting throw moves in for the next one! [laughs]

EK: Oh, really? That’s good news.

YS: I’ve taken on board all the comments from the players. I want to completely refresh the facial animations too.

EK: Ah, certainly some people did say the characters’ expressions were rigid.

An Open World that Differs from Others

YS: Also, if there are too few people it doesn’t feel like China, so I’d like to increase the number of characters simultaneously walking around town. For a town the size of Niaowu, I would want it to be four times as dense.

EK: Four…times?! I thought Niaowu’s density was already unparalleled. But it’s really a very... how should I put it… Shenmue-esque concept, isn’t it: not expanding out more widely, but making it denser.

YS: It seems that “open world” is the magic word driving game trends these days with every gorgeous-looking game aiming in that direction, but this makes it extremely difficult to stand out by being open world, doesn’t it? This time, rather than being hung up on making an open world, it might be interesting to instead have confined areas.

EK: Confined areas… that reminds me of the legendary chapter of the boat journey to Hong Kong.

Ryo's journey from Yokosuka to Hong Kong that took place between Shenmue I and II was not made into a playable section, but it was depicted in the official Shenmue "Side Story" comics. 
YS: I’m a technologist, so I want to try my hand at doing new things, even if they aren’t flashy. For example, making movement within a narrow space smoother than games to date. Narrow places actually feel more immersive, but narrow paths can cause various problems such as getting stuck, so the paths in games are always wide, right? I don’t think any developer has yet achieved smooth movement or exploration within narrow areas.

EK: Yes, even though they might be used in events, there may not be many games where you spend a lot of time exploring narrow alleyways.

YS: I made Shenmue III for the fans, but with the next one I’d like to be free to try new things.

EK: I can understand you wanting to try new things. That’s the Yu Suzuki we know, and I’m really looking forward to those parts.

YS: Being a technologist, I want to be able to move through narrow places more smoothly than other games, or display lots of characters at the same time and have people say “This is technology!” [laughs] My constant goal is to create something where technology and sense coexist.

EK: But creating that kind of revolutionary technology is very difficult with a limited budget, isn’t it? It’s a problem that I think always rears its head in this industry.

YS: Some technology can be purchased with money, but that sort of technology wouldn’t give the same sense of pride.

EK: In other words, if you have a good idea and technical skills, then just with these you can build something revolutionary… I’m really looking forward to the next new thing you will show us. However, as a fan of the series, I’m also curious to find out how the story will continue.

YS: When it comes to the story, rather than creating a great expectation for the main story, I would say it’s more something that grows more interesting with each chapter, in a similar way as with Tora-san [referring to the famous long-running Japanese movie series “It’s Tough Being a Man”]. In Shenmue IV, I want to make the side quests more in-depth. Through side quests, the relationships of the townsfolk will be portrayed more deeply… that’s something that’s quite Shenmue-like, wouldn’t you say?

The Japanese film series"It's Tough Being a Man" (Otoko wa Tsurai yo). In each film, protagonist, the kind-hearted vagabond Tora-san, falls in love with a different leading lady, but he invariably ends up heartbroken by the film's end.
EK: Yes, the presence of the people who live there is an important element in Shenmue, isn’t it.

YS: Of course, regarding the main story, the backstory will be rapidly filled out, for example I’d like to shed light on Shenhua’s background and about what kind of person Ren is, and resolve the mysteries that have been created until this point.

EK: I’m really looking forward to how the characters will be described. There aren’t many other games that have parts such as Shenmue II's disc four and Bailu village in Shenmue III where you talk with Shenhua over an extended period of time, and these really help you get to know the characters. But the main story must also be moved forward at the same time as portraying the backstory, which doesn’t sound easy.

YS: It comes down to what you are trying to achieve. If the aim is to attain the level of polish of Shenmue I, then for Shenmue III I think I would have used up the entire budget just on Bailu village.

EK: At that pace, the series would never reach a conclusion, would it.

YS: With a novel, you just need to write words, right? And for a movie, you just need to assemble pictures. But with a game you’re actually creating the experience through means of a program. [The amount of work is] frightening! [smiles wryly]

EK: Yes, I can see that. Even if you’re picking up on a clue from a conversation, with a novel or movie it could be done in a single scene, but Shenmue might have as many as 100 or so different patterns.

YS: Whether it’s a novel, movie or game, turning it into a hit is tough. That applies to all of them, but if you’re just talking about creating it, then a game would perhaps have to be the toughest of them all by far… [laughs]

EK: By a great deal more than two or three times, I expect.

YS: Having said that, it will definitely grow better. As a creator, naturally there’s no way I could make my ideal game right at the very start. With Virtua Fighter, I created 1 which led to 2, and then on to 3. I couldn’t have suddenly produced Virtua Fighter 5 right off the bat. Shenmue III was also a new start, so of course if Shenmue IV comes to be, I think it will improve upon Shenmue III in lots of ways.

EK: While it may have its faults, I think Shenmue III was pretty highly-polished for a new start, though.

YS: For me, I really believe there’s good to be found in imperfection.

EK: Ah, I know what you mean.

YS: To give an extreme example, some say that Italian cars break down easily, however no other car comes close to the enjoyment when they run well. Any faults they have are trumped by their charm. However, faults must be corrected. For example, to take combat, I’d like to implement something that is significantly improved by adding throws, improving ease of control, and making them smooth.

EK: Regarding the battle system, is there anything new you would like to implement?

YS: In Shenmue III, you could enjoy collecting a lot of Skill Books, but next time I’d like to let you enjoy a single move more deeply.

EK: For me personally, when a move is taught by someone through an event it adds a sense of narrative to that move, and it feels like Shenmue to me.

YS: Making those is a lot of work! [laughs] Even for Shenmue III, I feel that we did more than what we had planned. Originally, there was no move lesson from Master Sun at all, so we pulled out all the stops to add one, and really pushed beyond our limits to get it done [laughs]. I naturally have a vision of how a game should be, but that will change depending on things like the staff and budget.

Move instruction from Xiuying in Shenmue II

Yu Suzuki: More Than Just Shenmue

EK: Speaking of which, as you have spent a long period working on Shenmue III, and YS Net has also expanded as a development studio, I expect you’re able to do a lot more. If this is the case, are there things other than Shenmue that you would like to start working on?

YS: I’d be lying if I said no. [laughs] For me, Shenmue is something that I feel a responsibility to keep on doing, and of course I want to continue on with it until I reach the conclusion of the series. As long as people say they want me to make Shenmue, then I will continue to do so, as I mentioned before.

EK: I’m glad to hear that!

YS: However, ever since I was at SEGA, I’ve always wanted to build something different, whether that involves driving, shooting or something else.

EK: So, you would also like to try making something new. You probably can’t say too much at the current point, but what would be an example?

YS: I have lots! From racing to fighting, fantasy to science fiction.

EK: Even fantasy and science fiction? I have the impression that many of the games you’ve created have been realistic, so that’s a surprise.

YS: Back in the day I was called “Virtua Fighter’s Yu Suzuki” and, although now I’m more strongly associated with Shenmue, I’ve made all sorts of games up until now.

EK: As a fan of Shenmue, Shenmue IV is something I really want to see, but at the same time I’d like to see another FREE* game from you. Before Shenmue, you spent many years making games for the arcades, so I’d like to see from you more games based on various stories and worlds.
*FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) is a new game genre that Yu Suzuki created for the Shenmue series, and is said to be the forerunner of open world games.
YS: I’d like to make those sorts of games too, as well as titles suitable for esports, and titles that can be distributed episodically.

EK: I’m really looking forward to what YS Net has in store as a developer as it incorporates the latest trends, and even now is positioned at the forefront of the game industry.

YS: And of course, as long as Shenmue fans want me to, I will continue the Shenmue series. But, thinking of the ratios, I do hope the fans who waited 20 years for Shenmue III and were reasonably happy with it, will keep up a strong demand for Shenmue IV… [laughs].

EK: Don’t worry about that. I’ll keep making a noise about it until the series is completed. [laughs]

After leaving the YS Net offices, I felt somehow immensely invigorated. Shenmue IV had not been officially confirmed, and nothing specific had been revealed about other titles. However, one thing for sure is how keenly I could feel Yu-san’s passion for game development. The day when Yu Suzuki will astonish us will come again. That much seemed certain.

Source: original IGN Japan article [Japanese]

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  1. What a great interview :) Thank you very much for translating it Switch.
    Considering Yu san's enthusiasm and confidence in this interview, I say it seems very likely that we are going to get Shenmue IV. It might be just the fan in me, but from the way he talked it even seems that is already working in it.
    I'm also glad that he is taking his time and is researching on how Shenmue IV can please new gamers and at the same time still retain its original charm whithout disapointing its hardcore fans.
    Can't wait to read what everyone thinks about this interview at the Shenmue Dojo.


    1. Thanks for your comment! It's certainly a positive update to hear for us fans. Let's hope Yu will be successful in securing funding so that Shenmue IV can get the green light!

  2. Interesting interview. thank you so much for translating it Switch. :)

  3. Great interview indeed! Thanks a lot! :)

    I hope that Yu knows what he is talking about. Shenmue III more took away from my fandom than added to it. It should have at least kept the "new journal entry added" sound and iconic stuff like that from the previous games instead of just making things feel very old-fashioned. I especially disliked the story not going anywhere and you having to learn two identical moves in one game to somehow magically beat an opponent. Let's be honest—the story telling in this game really, really sucked.

    Here's hoping Shenmue IV improves upon everything!

    1. Thanks for your comment! In the end a lot will come down to Yu's creative vision, but it seems as if he has made an effort to study the feedback for Shenmue III, so the next one should be able to build on it and reach even greater heights.

  4. "For me, I really believe there’s good to be found in imperfection." - YS