From Shenmue to Yakuza, Toshihiro Nagoshi looks back on an illustrious career of Japanese game development

Yakuza

I feel like I’ve talked a lot about money today, but after PlayStation 2 was launched, the development costs of consumer games increased dramatically. And there was another paradigm shift in the market. Until the PS1 era, Japanese games in the western market were successful – within the top 20, say, around ten titles would be made in Japan. Maybe more. But that changed, and it became difficult for Japanese companies to compete with western games of high quality and big budgets, like those from EA, Activision or Rockstar Games. Personally, I knew it would happen. 

After all, a company, located in the Kyoto countryside, that used to make hanafuda card games, happened to develop an electronic game, and dominated the world unexpectedly. That’s why, initially, game development was centred in Japan. But as technology becomes more and more advanced, just like in music and movies, the destiny of an entertainment business is being absorbed by the US west coast [laughs]. I knew it would happen to the game business too. All the Japanese developers were flustered. We all wanted to create something that would sell well, but if we wanted to do so, it would have to be sports, or military, or fantasy; they were limited to a few genres. 

And it would need to sell worldwide, and so had to release at the same time globally. So there were certain prerequisites there, and since everyone was thinking the same things, everyone was making similar games [laughs]. But I thought it wasn’t right to follow that direction. So, first, I abandoned the idea of selling worldwide. Next, I decided I wouldn’t mind if female players didn’t like the game; then that no children were allowed. When I decided all that, the only target left was the Japanese male. I didn’t want to create a game where the characters had names like Jack or Tom. I wanted my character’s name to be Kazuma Kiryu. Obviously that wouldn’t be familiar to Americans, but it didn’t matter, as I wasn’t expecting them to buy the game. 

We’d been too focused on the worldwide market. There might be an argument about sales – the Japanese market was small – but I knew it would be successful if we got it right. And we did. My bosses took some convincing. I did a presentation twice, and didn’t get approval. I thought my third presentation would be another ‘No’, but there was another divine wind blowing toward me. Sega was struggling for cash and was very close to bankruptcy, so it merged with Sammy. As soon as it happened, I went in to see the new owner and presented the game to him, looking for his approval. Professionally, this was highly irregular and quite wrong. But I knew if the owner said ‘yes’, it would be good for the entire company. He asked me, “Do you really want to do this? Are you certain, and believe in yourself, that it will be successful?” I said, “Of course. If I’m wrong, you can do whatever you want with me.” 

I got his approval, but our CEO was really mad about it [laughs]. He said it was unfair. I’ve never said this before, but while we released this game with Sony, I’d done presentations about it to Microsoft and Nintendo. Back then they said, ‘No, we don’t want it’. Now they say, ‘We want it!’ [laughs] They didn’t understand the reason why I created it. I’m often asked how I did all the research, but it’s Japanese culture – we have a lot of literature, comics, movies, tons of material we can refer to. But I did some of my own, yes. I like drinking; I also like women. 

I was having lots of fun in my life for a long time – whether to shake off my stress from work, or deepen the connection with my subordinates. I was, as they say in the west, a party- animal kind of person, and I learned a lot of interesting stories from the people I met. And some surprising stories, and some sad ones. They became elements of Yakuza’s story. The name Kiryu is one of them, and Mizuki [Sawamura], the first female core character, and other female characters’ names were from ladies I used to date. I often do that in my games – I use the name of a person I liked or who looked after me well. I still do that today.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

I’m CCO now but, even in my current position, I am still very close to the director role. I create the plot by myself; if there are any parts of the scenario I want to change, I rewrite them myself at home. And I tell the staff to make adjustments I think are necessary. People tend to think that the higher your position becomes, especially when you’re managing the business, the less hands-on they are with the product. I think the game industry is unique in this way. 

The CEO of an automobile company, for instance, drives his company’s cars. I’m sure the heads of music and movie companies go and see their artists and films. But the CEOs of videogame companies don’t play games, they just manage the business. And I don’t think that’s right. You should know what kind of products you’re selling, what their good and weak points are. In the game industry, CEOs see only the promotion, just briefly, and do not actually play it. It takes time, yes, but I personally want to keep myself updated on the kinds of games Sega is developing.

So I still play games, and I also want to know what the workflow of this generation is like, to ensure we still work efficiently. In order to see those things, I need to continue to participate in the process of making games. Otherwise, I can’t say anything of value to my staff. That’s my policy. I still work hard, though it’s getting harder as I get older [laughs]. 

We said goodbye to Kazuma Kiryu in this game, and one of the reasons for that was that the style of the game had become predictable. The systems of the game, the game’s worldview and main character – they are strongly associated with him. Kiryu is a cool guy, and I gave him as much freedom as I could, but still, there are certain limits and rules – ‘Kiryu would never say that,’ that kind of thing. 

I didn't want to create a game where the characters had names like Jack or Tom.

It’s okay to make minor adjustments here and there, but if we were to make a big change, the main fans would be unhappy, I think. But I want to make critical changes, which can only be possible with a new character. Some fans were disappointed, but at the same time there are lot of people who believe he will be back again in the future. 

If he ever returns, I want to do it with a surprise. When I was making Yakuza 5, I told my bosses I could do one or two more games with Kiryu and that would be it. I wanted to do something new, and while there was a risk of losing current fans, if we continued making it over and over, it would be more and more predictable, which was also a risk. Anything that you start has to end someday. And if we were to end something, I wanted to do it when it was kind of at its peak.

Judgement

We already have a new Yakuza project, with a new character. It will be based in Japan, and as a human drama, it will be an interesting one. That part is the same as the previous games. But as for the game itself, we’ve reviewed a lot of the systems and so on. One of the original aims for the series was to tell a story of an underground society. It’s an oriental outlaw’s story, but it’s really a human drama. I wanted to have a big impact in the opening moments, so we put the outlaw front and centre at the beginning of the game. 

If someone likes that kind of thing, they’d play and later realise that it was a human drama. On the other hand, if someone didn’t like the beginning and didn’t keep playing, they wouldn’t see the real attraction of the game. It will still be quite hardcore at the beginning, but I want to player to think, ‘Oh, this game seems really interesting’ – that’s what I’m aiming for this time. That goes for the technology too, though I don’t want to say much more as it would spoil the fun. By introducing a new and more current system, I’d like to increase the number of players. And if I do that, I can reintroduce Kiryu-san to some new fans. That would be ideal.

This article originally appeared in Edge Magazine. For more great gaming coverage, you can subscribe to Edge here.