The lights are on
Yu Suzuki, the mind behind Shenmue, spoke today at the Game
Developers Conference in San Francisco about how his vision came together.
The project was ambitious from its beginnings, but Suzuki
was always after something grandiose. After joining Sega in '93,
Suzuki's early work was creating arcade games like Virtua Fighter. Suzuki
recalls that at the time, the ideal average play time for an arcade game was three
minutes. That wasn't much time to get its essence across, which motivated
Suzuki to make a home game. "I wanted to make a console game that would have no
time," he says.
Suzuki knew that without time constraints, he would have a
lot of space to fill. He decided he needed to expand his knowledge as a gamer,
as he primarily played 1980s adventure games. He started researching '90s RPGs,
noticing a few things he wanted to change, such as not being able to talk to
NPCs without directly facing them.
Suzuki did an early prototype on Sega Saturn called The Old
Man and The Peach Tree to experiment with 3D graphics, collision, and clipping.
The basis was that the player was searching for a grandmaster and encounters a
man searching for a peach. The player must figure out how to solve the task.
From this, Suzuki was set on making a Virtua Fighter RPG, which would transform
into Shenmue (though Sega would eventually make Virtua Quest for the PS2 and
Gamecube). He was particularly interested in having players fight multiple
characters at once and using cinematics to increase emotional involvement.
However, it wasn't until Suzuki went on a trip to China that
he was inspired for its story. "China made a very strong impression on me, and
became the basis for Shenmue," he says. One of Suzuki's fondest memories from
his trip is when visited a grand Bajiquan grand master. When he showed up, the
master was drunk on sake; this lead to his idea to use something similar due
to the distinctive drunken Bajiquan style. When he sparred with the drunken
master, Suzuki fell head first to the stone floor, receiving a huge bump on his
head. "When I think back, it's such a
Suzuki returned to Japan and worked hard to compose the
story, but he didn't want just game developers in the mix. It was important to
get a wide variety of writers involved, such as screenwriters, movie directors,
and playwrights. But as his project expanded with the open-world he aimed to
create, he soon found he had to compromise his initial vision for the
narrative. The group wrote 11 chapters and the goal was to make the first two
the debut game, but Suzuki had to scale back and decided to release each
chapter as a game instead.
Project management became the biggest challenge as
over 300 people worked on it by the end. The team managed workloads using
excel, leading to over 10,000 items in a database. "It's frightening to think
we managed this project basically by pushing around pieces of paper," Suzuki
With a world as vast as Shenmue, playtesting was vital, and
the team would often find 300 bugs and resolve just as many in a single day.
One demand that Suzuki remembers was Coca-Cola's product placement. When
supplied footage, Coca-Cola wasn't entirely happy, saying vending machines
could not be placed to stick out in the road. The Shenmue team had to go back
and adjust all the positions of the vending machines to appease Coca-Cola.
Suzuki ended his talk teasing that he'll talk about some of
the behind-the-scenes development of Shenmue 2 in the future. Of course, it
wasn't long before an audience member asked when Shenmue 3 will be released.
Suzuki smiled, saying, "Of course I want to make one. If I have the right
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