Toshihiro Nagoshi Yakuza interview – ‘an authentic Japanese experience’

GameCentral talks to the mastermind behind Sega’s Yakuza franchise, about spin-off Judgment and the changing tastes of Japanese gamers.

Despite the huge influence that Japan has on video games it’s often not all that clear how Japanese developers view the wider gaming world, and the changing fashions in game design and hardware. That’s why we always relish the chance to talk to top creators, even if that opportunity only comes up rarely. We particularly enjoyed our last chat with Yakuza director Toshihiro Nagoshi, but that was eight years ago, just prior to the release of Binary Domain, and it wasn’t until last month’s E3 that we got a chance to meet him again.

This time round we met him just before the release of Judgment, a detective-themed spin-off from Yakuza, which, at the time of the interview, we were only part way through. Although we ended up enjoying it quite a bit and giving it a positive review in the end.

When we spoke to Nagoshi we talked about the difficulties of making a realistic detective title, but also the change tastes of both Japanese and Western gamers – and why both currently seem more accepting of each other’s games than they have in a long time…

GC: It’s a long while since I last saw you, for Binary Domain, but I’m glad to see that in that time Yakuza has become more popular than ever in the West. Why do you think there’s been that upturn in interest over the last few years?

TN: Since you mentioned Binary Domain, I wanted to specifically talk about how we are very proud of that game, but in terms of trying to market it to a worldwide audience it didn’t do as well as we wanted it to. It didn’t do as expected and it was definitely a learning experience. And it was kind of the turning point for us, where we started to think that, as a Japanese studio, we’re most knowledgeable about what we know best in Japan. And we want to create an authentic Japanese experience rather than trying to be someone else, by trying to appeal to audiences outside of Japan.

That’s kind of the core philosophy that we adopted as we continued the Yakuza series, and now Judgment as well. That’s what we’re really committed to now, and Binary Domain was a turning point for that – as well as this trend we’re seeing now of more Japanese games doing well in the West.

GC: In a way that’s a pity because I really liked Binary Domain.

TH: Thank you!

GC: It had some terrible box art, but it was a very good game.

TH: [laughs] That wasn’t me! [laughs] I actually got really angry about that box art.

GC: I bet you did.

TH: [laughs]

GC: How did the idea to make Judgment come about? Was that you, or Sega, deciding you wanted a spin-off, and then you figured out the details later, or did you start with the idea of making a private detective game?

TH: So, we as a studio have always really wanted to challenge ourselves to create a new IP using all of the skill and experience we’d gained by developing the Yakuza series. We had a lot of technical skill and knowledge on how to make a game but we didn’t have the right timing to really embark on a new game. But since the current Yakuza series came to a close [the next entry will feature a new lead and plotline – GC] we thought this was the right time to jump on board with a new character and a brand-new storyline.

And I myself have always loved action adventure type of games, where you have to use more of your thinking skills in order to get through the game. But Kazuma Kiryu wasn’t really one to think too much about things, so I wanted to create a character that has to really use his mind in order to progress through the game.

GC: Detective work has always been very difficult to turn into gameplay, because no-one wants to get stuck on a puzzle and that tends to make it all very trivial. How did you approach that problem?

TH: It’s really exactly as you say, it’s very difficult to build a detective-themed game so that players will still want to continue playing and they won’t just be put off by it because it’s too difficult. But we wanted to make sure that players can have that ‘ah-ha!’ moment, that satisfaction, of solving something and moving along. But then we didn’t want to make it too difficult for them either, so it was definitely a challenge to build this game.

But I guess the one thing that I can say that we were really mindful of, in creating a good balance, was to keep the foundation of the mystery-solving very intuitive and at its root very simple – but then add some mechanics and little tricks here and there to make it fun for the players to solve it. And that’s where we kind of feel that the development team really gets to show their skill-set and pull that off.

GC: It’s curious that crime dramas in general are very rare in video games, despite being extremely common in movies, TV, and books. Even something like GTA isn’t very story-focused. Why do you think that is and why have more developers not tried to copy your approach with the Yakuza series?

TH: I totally agree with you, but that is another area where Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is in a unique position, where we’re really used to building these types of games. But it is definitely a difficult genre to tackle in games. Our studio has just been at this genre for so long, and has so much experience with making them, but it’s not an easy thing to come into.

I have talked to other developers who have actually told me that they don’t want to create a game in the same genre and be seen as a copy-cat or second-rate version of the Yakuza series. And also, it’s such a difficult genre to tackle that it would be a lot of work… and money.

GC: That’s the first I’ve heard of a developer actively avoiding copying someone else’s ideas!

TH: [laughs]

GC: How do you observe the difference between Western and Japanese approaches to the concept? It’s impossible to imagine the whole controversy with Pierre Taki happening in the West and yet the presence of hostess clubs in your games has always been somewhat controversial here.

TH: That’s something we’re not actually very conscious of when creating the game, because hearing things like that from you, that the hostess bar would not be something that a Western developer would include… we weren’t really aware of that taboo as a Japanese creator. So it’s interesting to hear that feedback.

GC: Have you noticed a change in tastes amongst Japanese gamers this gen? It seems to me they’re a little more interested in Western style games now than they used to be.

TH: I think there is definitely a trend of Western players accepting games from Japan but also Japanese audiences really embracing Western games as well. And it’s really… Western games are succeeding in Japan much more than they used to. It’s really happening at the same time, players in each region embracing foreign games.

GC: When we last met I asked why aren’t there more Japanese-made shooters but nowadays open world games are also very popular – and Japanese developers don’t tend to make them either. Is there a specific reason for that?

TH: I definitely think one of the main things is the budget, because it’s just millions of dollars difference between the budget for those open world games and ours. And it’s not so much the development and if the creator side want to do it or they don’t have a motivation to do it. It’s more whether the entire company has the will to put that much budget on the line in order to create a game like that.

GC: Just a quick question – I always wondered this, but maybe it’s just me – but was there never any thought to use the Yakuza template to make a reboot of the Streets Of Rage franchise? It’s always seemed to me that it wouldn’t take much more than altering the balance between combat and story.

TH: There was never any push for that. I’d actually never really thought about it that way.

GC: Do you ever envisage going back to making more fantastical games in the future?

TH: You’re right that we’ve been really working on this sort of modern day, reality-based game for a while now. And we definitely have thoughts about wanting to try something in a different environment as well. When things get very busy we start imagining, ‘I want to be working on something totally different!’

So it’s in the back of our minds, we just really feel that thanks to the success of the Yakuza series we’re now able to work on Judgment and we’ll keep working on perfecting our skills and experience in this genre. But I feel like when the time comes we’ll embark on a new, maybe more fantasy type game style.

GC: That’s very interesting, thanks a lot for you time.

TH: Thank you!

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