Monday, March 22, 2010

My Yu Suzuki Interview Part 1

While working in the video game industry I was incredibly fortunate for many reasons. To be perfectly honest it was dream come true, that's really the only way for me to describe it. Not only did I work with so many amazingly talented people, I made friends with dozens of awesome individuals who loved gaming as much as I did. I was also able to meet some of my heroes inside the industry; people like Shigeru Miyamoto, Dave Perry, Yuji Naka and Yu Suzuki.

When I was employed with GameWEEK as managing editor, I sat down to interview Sega's Yu Suzuki during the Game Developer's Conference in San Jose. It was, without question, one of the shining moments of my career and I will never forget it. As part of my salute to Shenmue and its 10-year anniversary, I decided to bring you that interview, originally conducted in March of 2000. It is broken down into three parts.

Here it is, part 1 of my GameWEEK Yu Suzuki interview...


Throughout all of the good times and bad times over the last fifteen years, Sega has owed much of its staying power to one man. His name is Yu Suzuki.

Graduating from The Okayama University of Science, Yu Suzuki joined Sega Enterprises in 1983 with an Electronic Science major in hand. It didn't take the young programmer very long to get noticed by company officials. Two years after starting his employment, he finished his very first arcade game, Hang-On. It was an instant success. Since that time, Sega's creative front man -- who turns 42 years-old this month -- has managed to come up with hit after hit for the coin-operated amusement industry, with many titles making their way to Sega's home consoles such as Genesis, Saturn and more recently, Dreamcast.

Currently positioned as corporate VP of software R&D, Suzuki is best known as the mastermind behind Sega's Virtua Fighter series. So much so, in fact, that The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a Virtua Fighter cabinet on display in Washington D.C.

And then there's Shenmue, Sega's "do or die" Dreamcast game. Taking five years and a reported $40 million to produce, Shenmue is the most ambitious, most expensive video game ever assembled. A sort of "RPG/Adventure/Fighting" hybrid, the game was released in Japan late last year and was praised not only for its innovative approach, but its sheer size and scope. A four GD-ROM set, Shenmue is currently undergoing localization and is scheduled to release in the U.S. this fall.

A whole hell of a lot is riding on Shenmue's release in America and no one knows that better than Sega itself. How will gamers in this country react to Shenmue's unorthodox gameplay? How tightly will players embrace a game so heavily steeped in Japanese culture? No one knows for certain but in the meantime Suzuki was kind enough to sit down with GameWEEK for lunch during the recent Game Developer's Conference in San Jose. Here's what the "King of All Arcades" had to say...

GameWEEK: What kind of feedback have you been getting so far from Shenmue players in your country?
Yu Suzuki: The fourth disc in Shenmue -- the Passport disc -- lets users go online to the Shenmue homepage and allows us to receive data from those users. We are getting a lot of feedback. Only one out of 30 responses has been negative. With the Passport disc, users can go in and leave specific comments regarding what they liked or what they did not about the game through the BBS we have in place (this will likely be the case with the U.S. version of Shenmue as well -Jim). Some users are telling us they would like the control to be improved in Shenmue 2. I will see to this.

GW: Are there things that you would have liked to include in the first chapter, but did not due to time constraints?
YS: There are many. Some of these we hope to include in Shenmue 2.

Shenmue's immersive world is like no other

GW: The sounds... dogs barking; children playing; the gurgling water from the Koi pond... did it take a long time to put it all together?
YS: Yes, it consumed a lot of time and data. I worked with many sound effects people in the movie industry (grabs a pen and begins to sketch on Sega company letterhead). Let's say there's a shop here playing music. Then there's a speaker attached to a pole down on this end of the street playing a different song. So when the character walks through here, you can actually feel the sound of one song fade and the the other song get louder. Let's say there's an icy spot, a snowy spot, a dirt spot, a concrete spot and a puddle. The sound of Ryo's footsteps changes as he walks over these different surfaces.

GW: With regard to realism, how far do we have to go to experience the ultimate "living world" in a game?
YS: I did not pursue realism. I pursued reality. It's different. (pauses) If I could pose a question to you, how many interesting or fun things happened to you last week?

GW: Very few.
YS: (smiles) Yes, that is realism. Realism is boring. In a game you have to have one exciting event at least every ten minutes to make it entertaining.

GW: The QTEs (Quick Timer Events)... we like them a lot. What's the feedback been on them? Will you continue to feature QTEs in future chapters?
YS: There are barely any negatives on the QTEs so we will probably include more in the future. The QTEs are very easy to grasp for all players.

An example of a QTE in Shenmue

GW: There was a bit of concern here in the states that the QTEs might be a bit unexciting, similar to the gameplay introduced with Dragon's Lair. Are you familiar with the laserdisc games of the mid 80's?
YS: Yes, I am familiar with the games you are referring to. For QTEs though, the options are more complex, and you can try over and over. For the type where you only get one chance, the timing is a bit broader, a bit easier. For QTEs the game branches off the story depending on the result. As you make each attempt at a QTE, the timing shifts so that if you fail, the next try will be a bit easier. This makes it totally different than Dragon's Lair-type games.

GW: The Free Battle system... there's a lot more complexity there. How satisfied were you with this portion of the game?
YS: Hmmm... sixty, maybe seventy percent. If I tailored it to the complexity of Virtua Fighter, normal people wouldn't be able to play it. The timing in a real fighting game is very critical (begins thumping his fingers on the table)... it's all about how fast you can react. An RPG is a game where you have to use your brain. Shenmue is a totally different type of game. Having a real, true type of fighting game in Shenmue would not be good. What I am saying here is that the Free Battle system in Shenmue is totally different from that of Virtua Fighter, so you can just randomly press buttons and win in Shenmue (starts pounding his fingers on the table at a frantic pace).

Virtua Fighter 2

GW: I understand... we refer to that as "button mashing" in the U.S. Was this done so that young children would be able to play as well?
YS: Yes, but most kids are pretty good already!

GW: Do you enjoy playing games?
YS: I do enjoy Puyo Puyo very much, but I do not have much time to play. I also like playing air hockey with my daughter. The games with the hammer and the little animals in the holes is a lot of fun, too!

GW: You need a Whack-A-Mole game in Shenmue 2!
YS: I will try!

The YOU Arcade in Shenmue

GW: The slot machines in Shenmue are very realistic...
YS: Yes. The payout rate is different for the machines. If you go to the fortune-teller, she will tell you your "lucky number" for the week, say, number 16. Then you can try that machine for better results. Every week the casino manager changes the payout rate. The slots were made with high accuracy. We've done enough tests to meet the standards of Las Vegas machines. They were tested 50,000 times. Of course, we had the computer do it! (laughs) Another thing... the jukebox in the game is the same model as the very first jukebox Sega ever made.

GW: Unbelievable. That is serious dedication.
YS: Going back to your earlier question about what I wanted to include in Shenmue, there is one thing I wanted to do but I did not have the time. There's a pool table in the back of the MJQ bar. I really wanted to make the perfect 9-ball. I love billiards and I would very much like to do that in Shenmue 2.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of my interview with Yu Suzuki


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