Tuesday, August 24, 2021

March 2021 Yu Suzuki Interview Part Two | SEGA Hard Historia

Part Two of our translation of a new interview with Yu Suzuki that was published in the recently-released SEGA Hard Historia book, featuring retrospectives with various key developers and staff members over the years.

Part One can be found here if you haven't yet read it:

In the second and final part of the interview, Yu-san talks about the evolution of 3D in games, and the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast eras.

Source material supplied by SkillJim (James Brown). Check out his SEGA Hard Historia unboxing video at the end of the article!

The interview translation continues below, with Yu describing how he gathered video footage for Out Run during his trip in Europe.

YS: We took videos with a camera to the hood and near the wheel suspension, attached with duct tape or string. It also had a sunroof, so I opened the sunroof and filmed from there. When I was thinking over what the player's car should be, I saw a red Ferrari outside a public casino in Monaco. A Testarossa. And it was a convertible. "That's it!", I thought, "There's no car more exciting, no car with more presence, no other car more enviable!" And the sunshine, unlike in Japan, was so crisp and clear. With its vivid red color shining brightly, under a blue sky and white clouds - I knew this was it.

Q: You next went on to create After Burner and G-LOC. What motivated you to create those?

YS: Well, there wasn't anything connecting on to these games. Mr. Hayao Nakayama, who was the (Sega) president at the time, was talking a lot about how MicroProse had released a flight simulator that had become a hit in the US. He was always saying, "Don't we have a flight simulator?" So I thought, "Why don't we make a flying game?"

It was like when I was working on Out Run and Hang On. Namco had games like Pole Position, and there was a general perception that racing games were Namco's thing. So when Mr. Nakayama said, "Don't we have a racing game?" I thought, "I should make one." (laughs) When I started Hong On, I had thought of making a racing game, but cars running into one other didn't seem very appropriate, so I decided to go with Hang On. So that's why there was this sense that Namco was the only company that made racing games. If I was going to make a game, I wanted to make one with something like the F14. Also, part of it was because Space Harrier gave me the chance to try something I hadn't done before. At the time, there was no 3D hardware, you see.

So I rendered 3D airplanes with a 3D library I had built, and made use of the resulting set of images, switching between them. I input all the data for the plane by hand, using 3D software tools I wrote myself. As they were sprites, I was free to hand-draw them how I wanted, but if I made the missiles look too smooth, they wouldn't look 3D. I wanted them to have a polygonal appearance, so I purposely made them hexagonal.

After Burner: Suzuki deliberately gave the missiles a hexagonal look
There was also the fact that, at that time, Atari had been making with 3D hardware using line drawings. Sega was a little behind in 3D. So we had to make something that would give the impression of "Hey, we've also got 3D!" At the time, [the movie] "Top Gun" was popular, and it was said that a true ace pilot would be called an "ace" if he or she had downed six planes in actual combat. 6 planes would make you a hero, but by contrast in After Burner it was over 100 planes (laughs). In fact, it's pretty much a fantasy. If you were flying face-to-face with a real fighter, the difference in speed would be so great that you'd never hit. People call it a simulation game, but there's not a bit of simulation to be found! In After Burner, the opponents fly backwards until you shoot them, you see. The enemy planes are flying backwards, and when you lock on to them, they finally come forward (laughs).

Q: The smoke from the missiles was pretty cool too.

YS: The trickiest thing about aerial games is that there are no roads. In a car game, if there's a boulder, you can't drive there. Obstacles are placed along the way. There are areas where you can't go off course, areas where you can, and a proper road.

However, in the sky, there's no road. The presence of a road  is what makes it easier to create a course that the player can learn. But we can instead create a path using attacking enemy planes. We built "missile walls" - so in one scene, for example, you have to avoid the missiles on a particular side, and in another scene, you have to clear a way through the sky by attacking in a certain way.

Q: Oh, I see.

YS: When we got to the R360 [arcade cabinet], it felt like we had reached a major milestone. In terms of the arcade cabinet, our goal was to rotate on one axis, then on two, and our final goal was a gyroscope.
Sega's R360 cabinet (released in 1990 with the game G-LOC: Air Battle)

Q: 1989 was around the time when Sega was releasing the Mega Drive.

YS: With the Mega Drive, we designed the Virtua Racing SVP (Sega Virtua Processor) chip for it, but I had no desire to create specialized software solely for home use. What I wanted was to work on the latest hardware. In fact, even the latest hardware at the time did not have the performance I was looking for, so I would ask them to make the kind of hardware I wanted. I was permitted to participate in the design stage to a certain extent, and I said that they'd get the investment back from my games alone, at the very least - but I often got into arguments with the designers while the hardware was being made.

Virtua Racing SVP for the Mega Drive contained a custom graphics chip

If, for example, Keiji Okayasu told me that he wanted to make an RPG for the Mega Drive, I would let him, if he had the time.

You mentioned our port of Virtua Racing, but from the start the AM2 team was making software for cutting-edge machines that were tuned to the max, so the arcade games we would make were something that home video game developers couldn't hope to match, no matter how hard they tried. Our approach was to build games that couldn't be ported, and then when it came time to release them for home use, AM2 would ourselves employ powerful optimization and speed-up to make a perfect copy. Since we were doing things with a completely different approach, I knew that we had no choice but to do it ourselves. We used DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) such as the SVP where the home hardware alone was not powerful enough.

The "Virtua" series was born from the spread of CG technology brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union

Q: That was around the beginning of the CG era, wasn't it?

YS: The collapse of the Soviet Union was in 1991, I think. Around that time, the first wave of the virtual reality boom came in from the UK. "Virtual" was a popular buzzword of the time, and our legal department said that if we called it "Virtual Fighter," it would be a registered trademark, so we took the "L" out and called it "Virtua Fighter". It might seem surprising, but it was a rather lax era.

Q: What was the Saturn era like?

YS: I worked very hard on the Sega Saturn. It had no 3D library, and the only ones available were very expensive ones like Silicon Graphics. So I thought there was no choice but to make one myself, and I did. I made the prototype of Shenmue on the Sega Saturn also, but eventually it was moved over to Dreamcast specifications.

Q: How about the Dreamcast?

YS: Mr. Isao Okawa would come and talk about his dream, his dream for the Internet. That's when we all decided to do our best to make that dream come true.

Sega Dreamcast

Shenmue is More an Evolution of the RPG Than an Open World

Q: What did you want to do with Shenmue?

YS: I'd been working on arcade games for a long time, and those tended to be built around a 3-minute play time, right? In order to increase income, an effort was made to make games that average less than three minutes. However, I thought I'd like to try making a game you could play for 30 minutes, 3 days, or even a week, and convey a message gradually during play.

I thought an RPG would probably be the best candidate for slow-paced play - an adventure or an RPG. The adventure and RPG games that left a strong impression on me were Mystery House, Ultima, and Wizardry. The earliest ones were on the Apple II, and had those beautiful blurred line graphics. Back when graphics were poor and only text adventures were available, Apple used line-drawing illustrations, but something being unfinished is what stimulate the imagination, doesn't it?

One of the games that evolved from there was Dragon Quest, but I had something different in mind for evolving the RPG, not a world like Dragon Quest. It was a direct evolution from Ultima, and from Mystery House. In my mind, that's what paved the way to Shenmue. It's like the way a school of kung fu branches out into different styles.

One of the early games that inspired Yu Suzuki: Mystery House for the Apple II home computer (1980) was a text-based adventure game that featured "beautiful blurred line graphics".

Things come out in the world in many different forms. That's why some people refer to Shenmue as the "first open world" or the original, but for me, Shenmue was my evolution from the early RPGs. During the development of the second game, Shenmue II, the Dreamcast was withdrawn from the market.

Q: How did you feel about Sega's decision to quit hardware?

YS: Frankly, hardware was where Sega was able to show off its strengths. The fact that Sega had hardware was certainly one of Sega's charms. There was the path taken by the PlayStation, for example, where it became more and more powerful and advanced, and processing speed increased. But Nintendo has gone in a completely different direction. So, if Sega's only choice was to follow Sony's path of increasing performance, I think Sega would have had no choice but to withdraw from the hardware market.

However, reflecting in hindsight, Nintendo has carved out its own unique path, its own place in the world. It's not about having amazing graphics; it's a completely different way of surviving. Even if the hardware is lower-performance than others, even if it has less memory, they still survive today. That being the case, I think Sega could also have found some other way to survive at that time. Could they have continued to compete on the same high-end playing field as Sony? Perhaps not, but if you put your mind to it, there are ways to survive like Nintendo.

Q: What was the reason why Sega's hardware didn't prevail?

YS: Well, I think that promotion was a factor, of course. I don't know if I should call it "sales strategy", but if you look at something like FF [Final Fantasy], for example, you can see that they have taken great care in developing the series. And more recently, with Ryu ga Gotoku [Yakuza], they have built up the series one year at a time. They take good care of the brand, protect it, strengthen it, and set it on the right track. Companies that rely on IPs for their livelihood, such as Square Enix and Bandai Namco, value their IPs. 

If Sega had been more conscious of this aspect of their business, I have a feeling their game business might have been very different. If they had done so, they might have been releasing a Virtua Fighter around this year (laughs).

Q: Looking back, what has Sega and Sega's hardware meant for you?

YS: Sega was the first company I worked for, but looking back on my life, I realize now that there's no better company to have worked for. There were times and technologies where I was needed, and I believe I was able to make a contribution.

When I was a student, I went through a lot of twists and turns: I gave up on becoming an elementary school teacher or a guitarist, and became a programmer, and thought that becoming a software engineer would do, which turned out to be game (developer). It wasn't planned at all, in many ways. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was working on 3D for my graduation thesis at university, and then the age of 3D actually came, and then just as the Soviet Union collapsed, we were able to jointly develop chips for the military. This accelerated the era of 3D. Video games evolved together with advances in semiconductors. The video game market started with Atari's hit "Pong," processing power improved rapidly, polygon graphics were used... and we've reached where we are today. It just so happened that a lot of things luckily came together.

My hopes for the new Sega is that it will continue on with uncompromising, unified power.

Q: What was your most memorable project?

YS: There have been many: Virtua Fighter, of course, because it represented a huge, but easy-to-grasp, challenge for the first 3D, and Shenmue, which was the culmination of that.

Shenmue was one of Yu Suzuki's most memorable projects at Sega.

Q: Finally, do you have a message for Sega fans?

YS: All I can say is thank you very much. When I did the Shenmue Kickstarter, there were fans who have supported me all the way. Aside from Shenmue, many fans of my arcade games also still support me today. I'm really happy that I still have fans from back then. Let's all make our voices known to Sega for them to make hardware once again.

Q: We'd love to hear the voices of Sega fans come together.

Thank you very much.

Bonus Interview Topics

#1: How Did You View the Rival PlayStation At the Time?

"Perhaps Sega was too frank for its own good back then"

YS: Sega was too honest, too friendly, too soft-hearted. At that time, when Sony was about to enter the game industry, if Sony asked us a question, we would tell them everything. Maybe we didn't think that Sony would become such a strong competitor in the future. We told them all sorts of things. If they asked me something, well, I just told them. We were all technologists, so we felt like we were on the same team. And Sony is a great company, so they were able to pick up a lot. Before we knew it, they were stronger than we had thought. The people at Sega were technologists, so they didn't think much about strategy or sales. That's why, later on, people like Mr. Kutaragi, Mr. Maruyama, and others from Sony would say to me, 'Thank you for everything, Mr. Suzuki'. I wondered why they thanked me so much.

Virtua Fighter revealed at the AM Show on August 27, 1993 (photo: Sega)
It's often said that the existence of Virtua Fighter helped boost the PlayStation, but it was also a good thing for the development of the industry.

#2: Sega Hardware Possibilities (If Anything Were Possible)

"These days, it's much easier to do interesting things".

YS: These days, we have Bluetooth wireless earphones. Now we're in an age where they can be easily made, we will soon see things like AR glasses. VR goggles will also become lighter as battery technology has advanced greatly. From here, for game players it won't be so much about high specs, but about input and output devices, like AR glasses, where we'll see the most change. Wearing glasses, you can feel buzzing and view with augmented reality. Changes in things like input [devices] and sensors will change the experience for the player. Rather than talking about "a 5-time increase in processing speed", it's input and output that will become more important. The experience will change drastically to be about what you see before your eyes. If they took things in the direction of ideas like these, I'm sure Sega would be able to do many interesting things in the future.

#3: Looking Back on Working at Sega

Calculation speeds equaling those of nuclear reactors, rockets

YS: Back then, you couldn't use division to perform 3D operations. With the limited power of CPUs at that time, the only things that could do perform that quickly were nuclear reactors that needed to shut down in 1/1000th of a second, rockets whose angle of entry into the atmosphere mustn't be out by even a fraction of a degree, and Virtua Fighter. Behind the scenes, we were working away with craftsmanship equivalent to inscribing 100 words on a single grain of rice (laughs). That's how proud we were of what we were achieving.
Virtua Fighter

#4: Yu's Recent Activities

"Recently I've been doing some fundamental research on all sorts of things - the things I want to do -  across a broad range: mobile, console, PC and so on. These days, unlike in the past, there are a great many development support tools. It has become easier to experiment, so it's a good environment to try things out various things," says Mr. Suzuki with his usual smile.

Interview held at YSNET on March 18, 2021

-- End of Interview --

Video: SEGA Hard Historia - Unboxing + DVD Showcase by SkillJim

Visit SkillJim's YouTube channel for more Shenmue and SEGA content!

Yu Suzuki's Early Days in Manga Form by Daniel Mann

Yu Suzuki's early career has also been published in manga form, which has been fully translated as a set of amazing scanlations by Daniel Mann.

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  1. Awesome articles, thank you very much for the translations! "My hopes for the new Sega is that it will continue to be honest..." That's an interesting statement. Do you think he meant something like, to be true to themselves?

    1. Hi Zoyous, glad you enjoyed them. About the meaning, yes that's the vibe - stay true to themselves, and not compromise. I may adjust this part slightly to make it clearer. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I never knew Playstation was so grateful to YS