Friday, June 21, 2024

TBS Interview with Yu Suzuki: Arcade Game Development at SEGA (Feb 2022)

This post contains the contents of a TV interview held with Yu Suzuki and other guests on the Japanese TBS channel in February 2022. The interview was originally shown on TBS as an episode in a series called X年後の関係者達 ("X Years Later: Those Who Were Involved") where key figures reflect and comment on past accomplishments.

This time the episode featured Yu Suzuki, joined by three others from the game industry at the time, with the MC being Kazlaser, a Japanese comedian who is known for his love of Sega, who participated through a video link. Suzuki talks about the development of some of his hit arcade games at Sega in the 1980s through to the 1990s. (Shenmue also gets a mention!)

--- Start of transcript ---


Let's go back 37 years, to 1985.

In the world of arcade games, where tabletop cabinets once dominated, two revolutionary games emerged in succession. The world's first motion-sensing game, Hang On. And UFO Catcher, which still boasts immense popularity today. The name of the company reshaping the landscape of game centers with its ideas and development power was: SEGA.

What enabled Sega to consistently produce groundbreaking games one after another?

X years later, former members of Sega's arcade division gather for a reunion.

Yu Suzuki with the episode's participants

Yu Suzuki

Yu Suzuki is a legend in the Japanese arcade game industry. He is the creator of the world's first interactive game, "Hang-On," and the world's first 3D fighting game, "Virtua Fighter," as well as the original open-world game, "Shenmue," among other historical masterpieces. Highly acclaimed not only in Japan but also internationally, he has won numerous awards. Even legends like Michael Jackson and Spielberg admired him and made special visits. He will reveal the behind-the-scenes development stories.

Legends like Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg admired Suzuki

The Birth of Hang On (1985)

Narrator: To start off, what was the cost to bring about the world's first motion sensor game that made Sega's name known, Hang-On?

Yu Suzuki: Originally, it was a concept from another department. There is something called a torsion bar [a bar-shaped spring used in cars etc], a metal bar that returns back if twisted. An actual motorbike returns to upright if you lean over, doesn't it? We thought we could find a way to apply it. It started with the idea for the cabinet, from the engineering side. I was in charge of planning the software that would go inside. That's how I was involved.

Kazlaser (MC): Until then, table-type cabinets and TV games were predominant, so was there a reason why you decided to create an interactive game like that?

Yu Suzuki: There was a feeling that table-type games had a bit of an underground, delinquent image, with people hanging around, smoking cigarettes, and such. So, there was a desire to change that image to something more open, where everyone could come and play. I wanted to change the way games were seen. The fact that it's a large cabinet adds to the development costs compared to making a regular table-type game, so there's a higher risk involved. That was at a time when it was said that Japanese people were shy. There were a lot of negative opinions like "They wouldn't straddle a bike in front of others", "What about girls in skirts?" We had to break through that somehow. It was throughout the industry. Someone had to do something.

Narrator: Suzuki's strong determination to change the aggressive image of the game center was the starting point of Hang-On's development. What Suzuki, in his second year of joining the company during a time when interactive games were still non-existent, was most particular about was the pursuit of realism.

Yu Suzuki in his mid-twenties

The Pursuit of Realism

Yu Suzuki: There was a real motorcycle race called the WGP500. I wanted to create a game where if someone like Freddie Spencer, whom I admire, actually rode, their in-game performance would improve as well. Until then, in driving or racing games, cars or bikes would explode just from touching each other. I also rode a motorbike, but I never had one explode! People talk about a motorbike's recovery - bringing it under control again after a short skid, for example. I thought if I made a game that mirrors regular driving techniques and bike skills, perhaps I would be able to do well at it too. I wanted to be somewhat good at my own games.

Kazlaser (MC): So you weren't particularly good at games?

Yu Suzuki: Playing games is not really my strong suit. Well, I know a lot about the games I've made, but I don't play other games much, so I'm not very good at them.

Narrator: Pushing for too much realism led to various challenges.

Challenges During Hang On's Development

Yu Suzuki: I wanted the bike's cabinet to have a gyro and motor inside so that when you rev the throttle, it stood up by itself and then came back down. I really wanted that kind of movement. I thought of various ideas to make it as realistic as possible, like experiencing the wind and vibrations you would feel on a real bike.

Kazlaser (MC): You're essentially talking about creating a full-fledged bike?

Yu Suzuki: Yes. Initially, we had the cabinets prototyped to the exact dimensions as the real GP500 bikes, but they were too big to fit into the arcade centers. We had to shrink it down to about 125cc to make it fit into the arcade centers. And even though it was called the first immersive game, it was operated manually, as it didn't have a motor or anything like that. You had to lean it over yourself. Costs were a consideration too, you see. By actually attaching a fan, you could have felt the wind and so on. I thought using parts from gaming equipment would pose durability issues, so I believed that actual motorcycle parts would be the most durable. However, they ended up breaking quickly. If we had placed an actual motorcycle in an arcade, it would have ended up running for 12 hours a day. So, it would have been run non-stop for 12 hours a day, which puts strain on components like the throttle and brake cables, leading to issues like them snapping. Normally a motorcycle wouldn't be ridden for 12 hours a day.

Kazlaser (MC): Even the endurance races at Suzuka are only 8 hours long, aren't they. Something longer than that on a daily basis wouldn't be feasible for the real thing!

Yu Suzuki: That's why, from the start, we sold it with a spare unit. Because we knew we'd be asked to replace it. Repairing it was difficult, so we included multiple extra sets from the start.

Kazlaser (MC): So did you feel there was still a lack of realism upon seeing the completed version?

Yu Suzuki: I was comparing it to a real bike, so it felt like it was still greatly lacking.

Improved Sound

Narrator: Not only that, but Suzuki also wanted to make the sound realistic, so there was a time when he tried to install a real engine in the cabinet. Of course, there were also issues with exhaust gas emissions, so it was abandoned.

Suzuki's idea of using a real engine had to be abandoned

So what Suzuki introduced instead was background music. That was also an industry first in games that previously only had sound effects. As a result of this intense dedication to realism, Hang-On became filled with industry-first innovations.

But how was it received upon its release?

Hang On was released in 1985

Hang On's Reception

Kazlaser (MC): Honestly, it's quite expensive, isn't it, for one cabinet? Unlike previous setups where you could just sell the board and have it installed, but this was different. You had to consider whether there was room to set it up.

Yu Suzuki: That's right! [laughs]

Ogawa (Sega Joypolis): 
Back in 1985, just having that red motorcycle at the entrance was enough to draw customers in. Naturally, that boosted Hang On's sales as well. Having the effect of attracting first-time customers to the arcade and showing them what the arcade experience is like, made it a worthwhile purchase from an operator's perspective.

Ishii (Former Arcade Game Magazine Editor): People were seeing a racing game like nothing they'd seen before. At that time, the most prevalent type of arcade games used a game board and were a table-top style. And so it made a great impact.

Kazlaser (MC): An impact that exceeded its sales figures?

Ogawa: At the time, all games were 100 yen to play, you see. It was about the accumulation of 100 yen coins. If you're getting 12,000 to 20,000 yen every day, you could recoup your costs and turn a profit.
The period for recouping costs was probably shorter back then than today.

Fukasawa (Sega UFO Catcher Developer): There were stories of the cabinet's cash box becoming filled to the brim and being unable to open.

OgawaDay after day those 100-yen coins would be collected and stored in the safe. At that time, the accumulation of those 100-yen coins served as the cash flow for arcade game development, console hardware development, software development, and other functions within the amusement industry.

Kazlaser (MC): Thinking about it, if Hang On hadn't gone well then the genre of motion-sensing games might not have come about.

Fukasawa: When I joined the company, a beautiful building stood there as the headquarters, and my seniors told me, "That's the Hang On Building." [laughter] I think it's because of Hang On that the building was erected. That's how amazing it was.

Kazlaser (MC): So the whole building was built thanks to Hang On!

Ishii: At the time, people were seeing a truly remarkable game that had never been seen before in that era, and flew to play it. The same goes for Sega's later games. 

R-360 (1990)

Narrator: After Hang-On in 1985, there was also Space Harrier, Out Run in 1986 and After Burner in 1987. Suzuki consecutively released major hit titles to the world. At the same time, technology continued to evolve rapidly.

And then, he produced a motion-sensing game that boggled the mind. That was the R360, released in 1990. Its greatest feature was being the world's first game to rotate 360 degrees. A dramatic evolution just five years on from simply straddling a motorcycle with Hang On.

Of course, there were significant challenges in its development as well.

The R-360 was able to rotate 360 degrees

R-360 Development Anecdotes

Yu Suzuki: At first, it moved along a single axis, with limits in place. But when you combine two axes, it enables various complex movements. With After Burner we used two axes, but there was a point where a limiter would kick in and stop it. It was said to move up to around 30-something degrees, it would stop at around a certain point. If you shaped it like an Earth gyroscopic toy, it would rotate endlessly without any limits around its rotation. At that time, the ultimate goal for that particular cabinet was to demonstrate advancements in mechatronics. The software was advancing towards 3D and such, but the ultimate goal of the cabinet's platform was for everyone to dream of creating that no-limit Earth (toy).

Kazlaser (MC): You could even do inverted flying, right?

Yu Suzuki: Everyone at Sega was fired up about creating it, at that time.

Kazlaser (MC): Given that the movement was quite intense, were there any accidents during development?

Yu Suzuki: When making the prototype and working on the cabinet's mechanical control, we had to implement various safety measures, such as locking mechanisms, to prevent accidents like falling.
It was dangerous, so we always made sure that programming was done by two people together as a pair.
With only one person, if a malfunction occurred, the machine could stop in an inverted position, which was really dangerous. So we always insisted that two people work together. But one confident programmer got into trouble alone. Fortunately, it stopped diagonally.

Kazlaser (MC): Was he stuck diagonally until he was discovered?

Yu Suzuki: Yes, fortunately it remained diagonally stuck without any serious consequences. When I went over, it was so funny I called everyone in to show them. [laughs] Well, it was a good "this is what can happen" lesson.

Ogawa: I remember the first time we installed the R360. We worked overnight to set it up, and operating it was a challenge. Until then, customers would insert coins and play independently, generating revenue. But with the R360, they had to purchase tickets, receive safety instructions, receive guidance, and then play. It was the first time we had to directly interact with customers.

Kazlaser (MC): In a way, like putting people onto a roller coaster ride at an amusement park?

Ogawa: That's right, you really needed to provide thorough guidance. Considering its free-range, 360-degree movement, safety was crucial. It was installed within a barrier with a radius of about 2 meters, because it was the first time something like this had been in operation.

Kazlaser (MC): With Hang On being about 200 yen, it must have been expensive to play?

Ogawa: If my memory serves correctly, it was about 500 yen per game.

Kazlaser (MC): Even now, that would make it one of the more expensive arcade games. Wasn't that quite a high charge?

Ogawa: Even so, back then, it still offered reasonable value for the experience. It offered a completely different level of immersion. Even now, with motion-sensor games you can't experience 360-degree rotation, can you. One that rotates freely by itself.

Kazlaser (MC):  I see. It had transcended the framework of existing games.

Ogawa: Rather than being categorized as an arcade game, we considered it to be more like an attraction.

Changing the Perception of Arcades

Yu Suzuki: Game arcades, which used to have a somewhat negative image and were seen as underground, gradually became more family-friendly. I was happy to see that even children and women could enjoy playing there, and their overall image became much brighter. Changing the way players themselves played there was one of my original aims.

Virtua Fighter (1993)

Narrator: Sega, had become a pillar of the Japanese arcade game industry with its motion-sensor games and UFO Catcher. Then, a powerful rival emerged. A big title that had captivated the young people of the time.

One day, Suzuki was called into the president's office, where he was personally given a top-secret mission: Surpass Street Fighter II.

"Suzuki, can I have a word?"

Capcom released it in 1991, and it became a worldwide hit. Its momentum sparked an unprecedented fighting game boom, to the point where arcades were completely dominated by Street Fighter II. Sega decided to create a game that could rival it.

Suzuki, who had made a name for himself as a hit maker, was appointed as the leader. And once again, he lived up to their expectations, creating yet another world-first game: Virtua Fighter. A 3D fighting game, something that was considered impossible at the time. Once again, they brought the world's first into existence.

Behind the scenes of that development, there were untold struggles.

Virtua Fighter Development Anecdotes

Yu Suzuki: I had always wanted to make a 3D game, but... One game before it we had was Virtua Racing, but before that, we didn't have a 3D motherboard or rather a system for it. I actually had wanted to do something with humans, but doing humans from the beginning would have been difficult. With a car, you just need to control the four connections where the tires are. But human beings have various bones, right? You need to move about 17 joints of those bones at least to make human movements possible, so it ends up being an enormous number of calculations. I gained some familiarity from the driving games. I practiced moving people with the pit crew in Virtua Racing, and thought, 'Now I can move people'.

If there are too many people, like in soccer or rugby, you have to control a lot of them, so it's difficult.
So I thought genres involving two bodies, like boxing and martial arts, might work. And so, Virtua Fighter was born.

Kazlaser (MC): Wow, it was all connected. Bringing know-how forward to the next game. Having too many people wasn't feasible, so you used two, which led to Virtua Fighter's success.

Yu Suzuki: After that, games like soccer started coming out, so the difficulty level gradually increased. Since I wanted to try 3D, I thought I might as well challenge myself with a 3D fighting game. I never thought about surpassing Street Fighter 2. It's a giant, you know, an amazing game, but I thought we could at least make it to the point where the development costs wouldn't be a loss. So I thought I'd do it.

Street Fighter II

Kazlaser (MC): So it wasn't about trying to start a completely new fighting boom from scratch. It was still a fairly modest goal?

Yu Suzuki: We didn't know how it would turn out, because it was so new. That's what made it unpredictable. It was an age where it was hard to believe that humans could move in 3D. So there were doubts as to whether it would be possible to achieve that level. With Virtua Fighter 1, creating the motions was a job that had never been done before in the gaming industry, as it was the first-ever use of 3D. There was some discussion about whether motion creation should be handled through programming or by designers. But once they had been made, they were not good at all. Graphics weren't very powerful, so we had to represent a person with just triangles, called polygons.

Narrator: Still, Suzuki-san didn't give up. In pursuit of realism, he developed movement of humans using a surprising method.

A Surprising Approach to 3D Motion Development

Yu Suzuki: If someone doesn't know how to hit or kick, the motions they create won't be realistic. So I asked them to actually punch me.

Kazlaser (MC): They actually punched you?

Yu Suzuki: My opponent was holding back and attacking slowly, you see. Attacking slowly means it's easy to dodge, which lacks realism. I asked them to come at me at full speed.

Kazlaser (MC): At full speed?!

Yu Suzuki: My opponent didn't seem particularly skilled in physical activities, so I figured I'd be able to dodge it okay. If they don't attack with a certain amount of speed, punching or dodging won't be properly expressed, you know? We wouldn't know how to create for the opponent's motions either. So, first of all we practiced punches and kicks together. Once they were able to do that, I had them make the motions.

Suzuki requested a full-speed punch

Virtua Fighter's Reception

Narrator: Virtua Fighter was ultimately brought to fruition by gradually building up realism with methodical dedication. What was young Kazu's impression at the time?

Kazlaser (MC): I was really surprised. At first, you know, I've been going to game centers since like Street Fighter 1, and even back then when 2D fighting games were really popular, with new ones coming out before you knew it. I didn't know how to play it at first, and it was kind of scary. Like, 'What is this new thing?' So at first, when someone suggested, 'Hey, let's try playing it,' I was a bit hesitant. That's how shocking it was. Yeah, it was quite an impact.

Ogawa: I distinctly remember being amazed at how it felt like real people were moving. The level of expression was so convincing; it really left an impression on me. With 2D fighting games, damage detection was approximate, but in Virtua Fighter, you would actually receive damage if contact was properly made.

Fukusawa: The controls, too - I wasn't really good at fighting games, but in Virtua Fighter, executing moves felt easy.

Kazlaser (MC): I totally get that. I was really into 2D games, so I wasn't very good at it, at first.
I had a friend in class who was really good at 2D fighting games, and every time a new one came out, he quickly became really strong. With Virtua Fighter, he suddenly became weak. Everyone beat him up. It was something completely different.

Ishii: To have created something completely different that stood by itself, and that was widely accepted, was an amazing achievement.

Virtua Fighter 2 (1994)

Narrator: Furthermore, in the following year's release of Virtua Fighter 2, they achieved a level of realism that surpassed the previous installment. The smoothness achieved with 60 frames per second revolutionized the gameplay style itself.

Virtua Fighter 2

Yu Suzuki: Virtua Fighter 2 sort of realized those things that had been left undone in Virtua Fighter 1.
Because of deadlines and budgets, we had to stick to the plan for Virtua Fighter 1 and release it as planned. There were still many things we wanted to accomplish so we did these in Virtua Fighter 2. One big difference was something called texture mapping, which allows images to be applied. That gave a jump in visual expressive capabilities.

Also, we used a proper motion capture system. We attached sensors to people, dressed them in something like bodysuits, and then captured motions by having them perform actual martial arts techniques.

Ishii: Virtua Fighter itself, well, the first game was technically impressive, but among gamers, there were mixed opinions, or rather, many didn't know what to make of it. When Virtua Fighter 2 came out, the visual impact was really strong, and everyone was like, 'Wow, this is amazing'. It felt like the era of 3D battles was just beginning.

Texture mapping

Narrator: As a result, Virtua Fighter 2 became an even greater hit than its predecessor. It triggered a substantial movement that resulted in the establishment of competitive tournaments.

Ogawa: At that time, there were cosplay events featuring entirely handmade Virtua Fighter costumes and  more. At the time there were notable players, or pros, like "Ikebukuro Sarah" and "Shinjuku Jacky". A lot of people gathered just to watch them play. At Yokohama Joy Polis, there were events similar to watching an Iron Man competition, for Virtua Fighter 2 handmade cosplay. Nowadays, various game tournaments are properly structured towards e-sports, but back then, such frameworks were still lacking. From my experience, I think Virtua Fighter 2 served as the prototype for various events and gatherings. There were things like continuous battles where you would stay and challenge opponents one after another. There were even matches against 100 opponents.

Virtua Fighter 2 proved immensely popular

Narrator: Virtua Fighter, with a new entry released last June, continues to be passionately loved. E-sports tournaments have been held with great success. There are high expectations for the continued development of Sega's flagship software.

Its artistic merit is highly acclaimed overseas, and it as been recognized as a masterpiece that has changed the course of gaming history, being permanently preserved in the USA at the Smithsonian Institution.

Yu Suzuki's Motivation

Narrator: The charisma that challenged the uncharted territories of interactive games and 3D fighting games, achieving tremendous success. The department he led, commonly known as AM2, gained immense trust from gamers.

What is it that drives Yu Suzuki?

Yu Suzuki: It honestly hasn't ever felt like a struggle because I'm doing what I love. I often stayed overnight at the office, working on things until the electricity or gas was turned off. People often say that I must have had a hard time, but honestly, bringing a sleeping bag and staying overnight is fun.

You can create new expressions when you're working on something, right? When someone's face changes on seeing your work in progress or says 'Wow!', as a creator it is satisfying. It was enjoyable, you know, feeling that sense of accomplishment.

Kazlaser (MC): If you were releasing creations like that, you're bound to have been approached all the time for headhunting, right?

Yu Suzuki: I wouldn't say all the time, but I did get a few offers. I had offers to double my salary and even offering a condo, without even asking about my current salary at Sega. 

Kazlaser (MC): Without even asking your salary means that no matter what amount you said, they were willing to offer double, right? Weren't you tempted?

Yu Suzuki: I was young, so I said something I thought sounded a bit cool like 'So that's about what I'm worth?' and then later regretted it. [laughs] I guess I just wanted to say something like that, you know, like a line you'd hear in a movie.

Kazlaser (MC): So it was just in the heat of the moment!

On Shenmue

Kazlaser (MC): Did you feel pressure in creating your games?

Yu Suzuki: I didn't really think about it that much... I did have various thoughts during Shenmue, though.

Narrator: Shenmue, considered the pioneer of open-world games where players can freely explore the game world. It greatly influenced the Yakuza series and others.

Shenmue: the pioneer of open-world games

Kazlaser (MC): There was a big mission to introduce the Dreamcast itself and to load killer titles onto it. It says here that the production cost was 7 billion yen, but is this true?

Yu Suzuki: That's a tricky one! Please ask Sega. [laughs]

Shenmue's budget: "That's a tricky one!"

Arcade Games and The Future

Narrator: The legendary Yu Suzuki changed the history of arcade games. According to him, what does the future hold?

Yu Suzuki: I think it's difficult to regain the prosperity of arcade games during their heyday, as both entertainment and video games have diversified. I've grown up in the arcade and spent my life as a game creator, so I hope arcades never disappear and will continue to thrive. There are things that can only be experienced in a game center. It's a live experience - you can meet people there, right? Live music and visuals are still an essential part of entertainment. The ability to interact with people adds another layer of interesting possibilities that I believe still exist.

-- End of interview --

Episode promo trailer (Japanese):

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