Thursday, June 4, 2020

Shenmue 3 Developer Interview with Implausible Industries

Following Shenmue III's release, the number of interviews and reports has naturally dwindled, so wouldn't it be great to hear some behind-the-scenes stories about the development process from people who actually worked on the game?

For Shenmue Day we present a new community interview with two developers from Implausible Industries, who were part of the development team that worked on the creation of Shenmue III and kindly agreed to answer questions from the fans about their experience. (A shout-out to mjqjazzbar from the Shenmue Dojo forums for getting the ball rolling on the idea!)

Shenmue 3 Developer Interview with Implausible Industries:

Implausible Industries is a Tokyo-based software house formed in 2013 by a small team of highly-experienced developers, who specialize in consulting and development of games on Unreal Engine. 

The questions for the interview were gathered from the fan community on social media, and the two developers answering this fan interview are:

Daniel Markiewicz
Shenmue 3 Role: Level Designer


Kees Gajentaan
Shenmue 3 Role: Shader Artist

(Also part of the development of Shenmue III was a third Implausible Industries team member, Chris Willacy).

The interview begins below.
Shenmue III logo

Involvement with Shenmue III

How did you come to work on the Shenmue III project? How was contact with YS NET first made, and how far along in the project timeline did you become involved?

Kees Gajentaan (KG): We were introduced to Suzuki-san shortly after the Kickstarter by a mutual acquaintance. We had started Implausible Industries just over two years before that, and our main line of business was (and often still is) helping studios in Japan develop games using Unreal Engine. Suzuki-san was looking for experienced UE developers like ourselves to join the team. At the time we were already committed to another project, but we started out doing some part time work very early on in the project.

Daniel Markiewicz (DM): First meeting was pretty funny. We were taken to an office expecting to meet with some producers or something and just talk money and schedules. Instead we walked into a room with just a smiling Yu Suzuki who proceeded to gush excitedly about the project’s future, past, and how exciting it was for Shenmue to be coming back!

Could you explain your role in Shenmue III, and the specific range of work each of you carried out?

KG: I came on board as a Technical Environment Artist, and worked on a wide range of things there, including the weather/sky, day/night time lighting systems, grass, some modeling and texturing. I created and maintained a lot of the shaders you see in the game, including those of the characters.

DM: My role could probably best be described as “miscellaneous.” I did a lot of generic UE4 consulting early on, and once in full production helped on a bunch of systems, including weather and NPC, as well as prototyping some minigames.

Previous Shenmue Games

To what extent were you familiar with the earlier Shenmue games before your work on Shenmue III, and what did you think of them?

KG: I played both S1 and S2 on the European Dreamcast, and I have many great memories from both games, as well as many other Dreamcast games. I also played about half of S2 on the Xbox. I’m definitely a fan of the series and was very happy to help this long-awaited installment become a reality.

DM: Shenmue for the Dreamcast was the first import game I ever bought, but I have to admit that I never finished it. Sadly, my ambition to play through it lost out to my really shoddy Japanese at the time and I gave up shortly after getting a forklift-driving job.
Forklifting in Shenmue I
Forklifting in Shenmue I

If you were already a fan, how did you feel about Shenmue III's story being spoiled for you during development?

KG: Suzuki-san initially only told us the basic outline of the story, and during the development I didn’t have to pay much attention to the story to do my work. While I saw many cutscenes during the development, I didn’t know in which order they would appear, or their significance, so it didn’t really spoil the story for me.

DM: Since I couldn’t really call myself a fan as such, I didn’t mind. Quite the opposite, it was really exciting to see all these detailed plans that had been laid down all those years ago finally coming to life.

Development (General)

What was it like working with Yu Suzuki and what sort of interaction did you have with him over the course of the project?

DM: He’s a very hands-on director and won’t hesitate to just wander over and talk if he has some feedback on your work. He’s very easy to approach with ideas and problems, assuming you can catch him during the rare moments when he isn’t busy!

To what extent did you make use of Unreal Engine 4 base assets versus building assets yourself?

KG: We used some of the assets created by Epic, but customized all of them with our own shaders to fit the needs and look for Shenmue III.

What kind of photos, videos or other reference material did you make use of? Did you make use of research material gathered by Yu Suzuki himself during his visits to China?

KG: We used references gathered by Suzuki-san and the rest of the team, as well as researched images ourselves. Of course, the previous installments of the game were also used.

How frequently did you communicate with Yu Suzuki and other developers, and did you meet directly or through video calls?

KG: We each worked 1-2 days a week on-site at the YS NET office, so we frequently had meetings with Suzuki-san and the other developers there. On our days there we’d discuss new tasks as well as provide general UE4 support to the rest of the team.

Were you given access, for inspiration or any other purpose, to concept art or assets produced in the original development days of the first two Shenmue games?

KG: During that first meeting with Suzuki-san, he showed us some of the volumes of design documents and NPC character profiles/ concept art from the first two games. As a fan of both the games and game development history, this was a really cool moment for me. I also remember seeing a photocopy of an early layout drawing of Bailu Village, dated either 1999 or 2000. The fact that this drawing already existed so long ago gave me great confidence in Suzuki-san’s vision for the game.

Level Design & Environments

Were there any maps or areas you designed that ultimately went unused in Shenmue III?

KG: There was one map that was briefly seen in the first trailer, which included a boat on the river travelling from Bailu to Niaowu. Even unfinished it looked pretty good, but it wasn’t necessary for the story, so it was eventually cut.
An area of river was shown briefly in The First Teaser but was not in the final release.
An area of river was shown briefly in The First Teaser but was not in the final release.

Did Yu Suzuki already have the basic layout of Bailu and Niaowu drafted out for you to work on?

DM: The basic drafts for pretty much everything in the game were done before production started, but of course quite a lot changed once full production got going.

By how much, and in what ways, did the scale of Bailu village and Niaowu change during development (for example, as budget increased)?

KG: There were a few areas outside of those locations that were prototyped, but eventually it was decided to bring the activities intended there closer to the rest of the action. Therefore, the two locations would both receive a higher degree of polish.

Certain areas of Niaowu have sections through which Ryo must pass at walking speed. Could you talk about how those came about?

KG: This is a very common technique used in modern games to allow the system to load and unload new data as the player travels across the map without bringing up a loading screen. I think the way it was done in Niaowu is quite an elegant solution - Ryo is such a well-mannered person, he would never run where he isn’t allowed to!
Ryo respectfully follows the rules as he heads to the Jade Garden in Niaowu.
Ryo respectfully follows the rules as he heads to the Jade Garden in Niaowu.

Shaders and Materials

For people who may not be familiar with shaders in Unreal Engine, could you explain a little about what they do and how important they were for Shenmue III in particular?

KG: One of the simplest explanations I’ve read to explain the difference between shaders and materials is the following: “A shader is code describing how a surface behaves. A material is a set of values for a shader's settings.”

Every modern game that’s trying to create a complete and realistic world will need many different types of materials. For common materials such as wood, plastic, or painted metal you can use a relatively simple shader -- all these surfaces simply have a color and the bumpy surface has a certain degree of shininess. Color textures are used to apply those colors, Roughness maps to indicate how shiny parts need to be, and Normal maps to set the direction in which light reflects. I add options to the shaders that allow the artist to adjust the look of the surface; for example they can fine-tune the color or the shininess when the surface needs to look wet, or add additional bumpiness to the surface on a different scale.

A water material however is very different; it’s translucent and the surface usually moves. Light seeps into surfaces like human skin and hair. Shaders can also be used to make vertices on geometry move, which is what we do for things like grass or the clothes drying in the wind.

So for each of these types I create a new or customize an existing shader to fit the needs and look of the game.

Could you point out a few specific examples of shader effects or materials from Shenmue III that you worked on, and give some insight into what went into developing and tuning them?

KG: One of the first things I created for Niaowu was the shader for the windows. By day they are just dark, reflective surfaces. At night, lights appear “behind” them and there seems to be some movement inside the buildings. When you walk past a window, the fake light source inside appears to be some distance behind the window, rather than painted on the surface. Chris, one of our other level designers, developed the system to make the lights turn on from a certain time of the day.
Window shaders
Window shaders: "By day they are just dark, reflective surfaces. At night, lights appear 'behind' them and there seems to be some movement inside the buildings".

I also created the shaders for the grass and other foliage that bends away from Ryo’s feet. This isn’t done with collision; the game sends Ryo’s location to the grass shader which then bends the vertices from there outwards. The wind movement of the grass is also done with a shader and is connected with the weather system, so that the speed and direction of the wind on the grass matches that of the clouds in the sky.
The grass shader handles the bending of foliage away from Ryo's feet.
The grass shader handles the bending of foliage away from Ryo's feet.

"The speed and direction of the wind on the grass matches that of the clouds in the sky".
"The speed and direction of the wind on the grass matches that of the clouds in the sky".

In a 2017 interview, Yu Suzuki talked about implanting the feel of “California humidity” for Shenmue III’s graphical scenery, as well as a goal of producing graphics that you can practically smell. Did he give any guidance to you on this topic, and how did this influence your development approach?

KG: I knew from playing the previous games that weather was going to be an important part of the experience, so we talked about it and I began working on it quite early on. I developed the shader that allows objects, the terrain, and Ryo’s clothes to look wet when it rains. After it stops raining, the surfaces will continue to look wet for a while. The shaders I created made it very simple for the artists to add and adjust the rained on/wet appearance of objects.
Shaders were developed to allow objects, the terrain, and Ryo’s clothes to look wet when it rains.
Shaders were developed to allow objects, the terrain, and Ryo’s clothes to look wet when it rains.
(Screenshot credit: Shenmue Forever)

I worked closely with Suzuki-san on developing the extra-colorful look using a combination of shaders, lighting and post-process settings.

Could you talk about a tricky technical challenge you had in trying to achieve a certain effect, and what the outcome was?

KG: One fun little thing I worked on was the eye shaders. Since the art style isn’t fully realistic, I added some tiny fake white highlights on the surface. As development continued, more and more functionality was added to these highlights. First of all, they fade out at a certain distance, otherwise they would look strange and appear too bright. Their brightness is also adjusted to the time of day, so they aren’t as bright at night. They also fade out should they reach the edges of the iris. And finally, I added the ability to precisely edit their size, distance from the pupil and angle, so that they could be fine-tuned and be in the exact position where Suzuki-san would want them during a close-up in a cutscene.
Tiny white highlights in the characters eyes were added with specially-created eye shaders.
Tiny white highlights in the characters eyes were added with specially-created eye shaders.

Post Release & the Future

To what extent have you played through the finished Shenmue III?

KG: I played and finished the main story, but chose to ignore some of the side-quests. Sorry kid, I don’t really have time to get you a soccer ball, I have to find the man who killed my father.
Maybe on the next play-through.
Maybe on the next play-through.

What is your favorite part of the game in which you personally had a hand?

KG: When playing the finished game, I really enjoyed seeing the buildings in Niaowu lit up with the red lanterns at night against the starry sky. The colorful Chinese environments combined with the fact that Ryo is staying at a hotel really effectively created that feeling of being somewhere else, making me really enjoy “just being there”, which for me is a big part of the Shenmue experience. I hope to visit more places in China with Ryo and Shenhua!
Niaowu: "lit up with the red lanterns at night against the starry sky"
Niaowu: "lit up with the red lanterns at night against the starry sky"

DM: Excite QTE. Dumb choice, but I made an early prototype of it and was really happy with the way the rhythm turned out.
Excite QTE 3
Excite QTE 3
  • Related post: a glimpse of Excite QTE 3 in early development was seen in the development report video in Kickstarter Update #65 in March 2017.
Yu Suzuki has expressed his desire to go on to develop Shenmue IV. Would you like to be involved in the next game in the series if the opportunity arises?

KG: We are currently working full-time on our own game called Research and Destroy. Suzuki-san has been very supportive of us over the years; he even came to have a look when we gave our first public presentation of our prototype a few years ago at Tokyo Games Show. I think Research and Destroy will appeal to fans of Dreamcast games like Jet Set Radio and Ooga Booga (although it’s also very different from those games), so please take a look and follow us on Facebook or Twitter if you like what you see.

Research and Destroy
Implausible Industries are currently working full-time on Research and Destroy
(Oct 2019 pre-alpha footage shown).

But YES, we’d love to work with Yu Suzuki and the rest of the team at YS NET again to work on Shenmue IV if the opportunity arises.

DM: It was a pleasure working with the team and I wouldn’t be at all sad to have our professional paths cross again! That said, I’d like to focus on our own projects as much as we can get away with in the coming years!

Thank you very much to Daniel and Kees for taking the time out of your busy schedules for the fans, and we also wish you all the best with your game Research and Destroy.

Show your appreciation by following Implausible Industries on social media to find out what they are up to!
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