The Mak­ing Of…

Sex, vi­o­lence and tar­geted mar­ket­ing: how Sega cre­ated a block­buster just for Ja­pan


Toshi­hiro Nagoshi re­flects on the cre­ation of beloved open-world PlayS­ta­tion 2 brawler Yakuza

Un­til 2005, the dark un­der­world of the yakuza had been ex­plored best in film. The likes of Takeshi Ki­tano, Teruo Ishii and Takashi Mi­ike brought us drama from the world of Ja­panese or­gan­ised crime with tales full of mur­der and re­venge, hon­our and hu­mil­ity, blood and vi­o­lence. Then came Ryu Ga

Go­toku – re­leased over­seas sim­ply as Yakuza – the game that made even the most sprawl­ing cin­e­matic epic seem shal­low.

Plac­ing play­ers in the im­mac­u­late shoes of sharply dressed pro­tag­o­nist Kazuma Kiryu, freshly re­turned to Tokyo after spend­ing ten years in jail for some­one else’s crime, Yakuza of­fers a world of money, vi­o­lence, du­bi­ous sex­ual pol­i­tics and ur­ban grit. The streets of fic­tional district Ka­muro­cho – ob­vi­ously, if un­of­fi­cially, based on the red-light district of Kabu­ki­cho – bus­tle with wannabe gang­sters, while its loan-shark busi­nesses, hostess clubs and game ar­cades be­come the play­ground set­ting for a de­bauched tale en­acted with re­mark­able cutscenes. Go­ing firmly against the wis­dom of the times,

Yakuza was made to ap­peal not to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, but to a small one. “I wanted to make some­thing that sharply pin­pointed a spe­cific tar­get mar­ket,” pro­ducer Toshi­hiro

Nagoshi says. “That’s where the idea started, as a game that would speak to Ja­panese con­sumers. It had to have a very iden­ti­fi­able mo­tif of Ja­panese drama – an ac­tion ad­ven­ture, with bat­tle el­e­ments and fight­ing, and a dra­matic world. There were lots of mafia and gang games al­ready, but the yakuza was the ideal mo­tif.”

Pro­duc­tion be­gan in 2003. Nagoshi had pre­vi­ously been de­ployed across several Sega ti­tles, with Su­per Mon­key Ball his main gig im­me­di­ately be­fore Yakuza, a charm­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion that barely raises a smirk when we men­tion it to him. He had also worked as a su­per­vi­sor on Shen­mue, with which Yakuza shares game­play and aes­thetic DNA. His col­lab­o­ra­tor was pro­ducer Masayoshi Kikuchi, best known at that time for help­ing guide the trou­bled Panzer Dra­goon Saga to com­ple­tion.

The pair’s big­gest chal­lenge was to bring Ka­muro­cho to life. They and their team spent several nights a week par­ty­ing in Kabu­ki­cho, vis­it­ing bars, restau­rants and hostess clubs to drink in the at­mos­phere (and the drinks). Nagoshi re­fuses to di­vulge how much of the game’s rel­a­tively large ¥2.4 bil­lion (£14 mil­lion) re­ported bud­get was spent on this phase of devel­op­ment, and he care­fully avoids re­fer­ring to Kabu­ki­cho by name, but the fruits of the team’s long, hard nights are there for all to see in

Yakuza’s im­mer­sive semi-open world. “I wanted it to be just like the real place,” Nagoshi says. “We went down there and took in the area with our own eyes, took pho­tos and did re­search so we could build a sim­u­la­tion.”


“It was fun, for sure, try­ing to fig­ure out how to trans­fer all of that into a game,” Kikuchi says. “There were all sorts of lim­i­ta­tions, in­clud­ing the hard­ware specs and game de­sign. So within those lim­i­ta­tions, how could we best ex­press this real en­vi­ron­ment? It was fun to ex­er­cise the team’s brains with that chal­lenge.” One way was by im­ple­ment­ing the se­ries’ sig­na­ture play spots, which are abun­dant even in the first game. Bat­ting cages, UFO catchers, casino games, pachis­lot: Ka­muro­cho was alive with hours of dis­trac­tions. “We wanted it to not only look like a city but to feel like one, too,” says Kikuchi, “[a place] where you can play, eat and drink.”

“The field it­self is small, es­pe­cially when com­pared with western open-world games, but it’s densely pop­u­lated and it’s deep,” Nagoshi says. He adds that the chance to freely ex­plore a fictionalised red-light district was a ma­jor part of the game’s suc­cess, and in­deed Ka­muro­cho may be Yakuza’s strong­est char­ac­ter. Any­one who has vis­ited Kabu­ki­cho or its equiv­a­lents in Osaka, Sap­poro, Nagoya or just about any ma­jor Ja­panese city will recog­nise the seedy but vi­brant at­mos­phere of a district run by the un­der­world for the plea­sure of the ev­ery­man. Ka­muro­cho’s streets make for a charis­matic and re­al­is­tic stage on which Yakuza’s in­trigu­ing story plays out, with ¥10 bil­lion in miss­ing Tojo Clan money at the heart of a sus­pense­ful power strug­gle.

If Ka­muro­cho is Yakuza’s strong­est char­ac­ter, then Kiryu him­self isn’t far be­hind. The ar­che­typal an­ti­hero, he is a man of con­science and gen­eros­ity but with a bru­tal streak and a thirst for vengeance. He is joined by a di­verse and colour­ful cast: psy­cho­pathic ‘Mad Dog of the Shi­mano Fam­ily’ Goro Ma­jima; in­no­cent young or­phan Haruka Sawa­mura, who un­wit­tingly holds the key to the stolen mob money; and many other mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, who would re­turn for later games.

“The only rea­son the char­ac­ters have res­onated so strongly with the pub­lic is be­cause the game sold so well,” Nagoshi shrugs, ever the con­trar­ian. “The rea­son the game sold well is for the rea­son I said ear­lier: it was a care­fully tar­geted type of game that didn’t ex­ist pre­vi­ously. The char­ac­ters have noth­ing to do with it. The char­ac­ters were born of the sto­ry­line; that’s where it all starts. As you hone the sto­ry­line, you re­alise you need this or that type of char­ac­ter, and then you re­write the story with them there, and just keep re­fin­ing it.” Yakuza’s cutscenes are nu­mer­ous, giv­ing

Metal Gear Solid a run for its money in terms of sus­pense, vis­ual qual­ity, act­ing and sheer en­durance-test­ing length. Un­re­stricted by the two-hour run­time of a movie, they take the player deeper into the crim­i­nal hive than Ki­tano et al could ever ac­com­plish in a sin­gle movie. Ex­pertly framed with cut­ting-edge 3D mod­els, they still hold up to­day.

Nagoshi says that the strength of the story el­e­ments is in large part thanks to that lav­ish bud­get: “If we’d made it with a low bud­get, it would have looked cheap.” The main story was writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with crime nov­el­ist Hase Seishu. “I wanted to re­flect both the real world and a fan­tasy world,” Nagoshi says. “If it was too re­al­is­tic, it would have been bor­ing; the story seems as though it might be pos­si­ble in

the real world, but it’s also fan­tas­ti­cal. That bal­ance was im­por­tant, and it’s the way we still make the Yakuza games.”

The fi­nal cru­cial piece of the puz­zle was the game’s com­bat sys­tem. With combo sets that evolve as you level up, the graph­i­cally vi­o­lent fights are wel­com­ing to but­ton-mash­ers but also of­fer com­plex­ity for those who want it. In Kiryu’s hands, ev­ery­day ob­jects be­come weapons – bot­tles, dust­bins, even bi­cy­cles can be smashed with sat­is­fy­ing heft into the face of an op­po­nent.

“Real-world ob­jects com­mu­ni­cate pain much bet­ter, don’t you think?” Kikuchi ob­serves. “You have no idea how it would feel to be stabbed with a katana, but you can eas­ily imag­ine the pain of be­ing lamped with a crys­tal ash­tray. You know roughly how heavy a bi­cy­cle is, so you can guess how it would feel to be hit with one.”

That said, al­most ev­ery al­ter­ca­tion ends with the de­feated party scur­ry­ing away, still very much alive de­spite the fe­ro­cious fin­ish­ing moves dealt via QTEs at the end of spe­cial combos. Kikuchi says this was partly with the game’s rat­ing in mind – even with such con­ces­sions, it was re­leased in Ja­pan as CERO D (over 17), and in the UK as an 18 – but Nagoshi says it was also a ques­tion of taste. Play­ers might kill hun­dreds of en­e­mies in

Call Of Duty, but Nagoshi “didn’t think it was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in a piece of en­ter­tain­ment to have lots of death and killing”.

The game’s devel­op­ment ran smoothly, de­spite many of the team be­ing new to the PS2 hard­ware. In­deed, the Yakuza en­gine would form the ba­sis of the many se­quels and spinoffs that fol­lowed on PS3, PS4, PSP and Vita, with a se­ries of im­prove­ments and up­grades rather than a ma­jor over­haul. The black cross­fade screen as Kiryu en­ters a bat­tle may have been born of hard­ware lim­i­ta­tions, but it’s be­come one of the se­ries’ mo­tifs, de­ployed in 2012’s Yakuza 5 de­spite hav­ing be­come tech­ni­cally un­nec­es­sary.

Yakuza was re­leased on De­cem­ber 8, 2005, in Ja­pan and sold 232,650 units by the end of the month; it has since ac­crued around 1 mil­lion sales glob­ally. How to pro­mote the game was as chal­leng­ing as its devel­op­ment, Nagoshi re­calls.

“The dif­fi­cult part was the mar­ket­ing – how to ex­plain to the me­dia what the game was about and why we’d wanted to make a game like that with­out spoil­ing all the sur­prises,” he says. “I gave that a great deal of thought all the way through devel­op­ment, be­cause I knew it would be im­por­tant. Still, the mar­ket­ing bud­get was huge com­pared with other games and even with the devel­op­ment bud­get. I’m sure that was part of the rea­son the game was suc­cess­ful.”

Yakuza is now a ma­jor block­buster se­ries in Ja­pan, with each new game ac­com­pa­nied by a bar­rage of tie-ups with real-world celebri­ties and restau­rant chains. Each year at Tokyo Game Show, Sega’s booth is dom­i­nated by a large Yakuza area, with fans clam­our­ing to see booth girls dressed as hostesses and guys toting katana, while the cos­play area is filled with fans pos­ing as their favourite char­ac­ters from the se­ries, many of them women cross­play­ing as Kiryu, Ma­jima and other male char­ac­ters. Per­haps the key is that, be­ly­ing its bud­get and grand scale, Yakuza of­fers a sur­pris­ingly per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

And de­spite Nagoshi’s in­ten­tion to cre­ate a game tai­lored to Ja­panese tastes, Yakuza also found un­ex­pected suc­cess in the west. Maybe its ex­oti­cism lends it its charm, of­fer­ing a glimpse of the un­der­belly of an ev­ery­day world that is not so ev­ery­day to out­siders. Al­though later games in the se­ries would come with sub­ti­tles, the first game is fully lo­calised with English voice act­ing, at Sony’s stip­u­la­tion. Ma­jima was voiced by Mark Hamill, while Michael Mad­sen voiced Shi­mano Fam­ily leader Futo Shi­mano. In the west, the cul­tural di­vide saw the game at­tract ac­cu­sa­tions of misog­yny for its por­trayal of hostesses as ob­jects of de­sire, with many as­sum­ing in­cor­rectly that the hostesses are pros­ti­tutes. Kikuchi brushes off the crit­i­cisms. “Hostess clubs are some­thing that do ex­ist in real Ja­panese towns, so I don’t see it as a deroga­tory thing [that they’re in the game]. If you don’t al­ready know what a hostess club is, just play the game – that will give you a pretty re­al­is­tic im­pres­sion.”

In Ja­pan, a se­quel was green­lit within a month of Yakuza’s re­lease, and Takashi Mi­ike directed a 2007 film adap­ta­tion, Ryu Ga Go­toku Gek­i­joban (ti­tled Yakuza: Like A Dragon over­seas), bring­ing the con­cept full cir­cle. “I didn’t ex­pect the film to be like the game, be­cause games are games and films are films; so as long as the film was good and it re­flected the game by about 20 per cent, that was fine,” Nagoshi says. “Mi­ike has a sim­i­lar style to the Yakuza games, and I think you can tell from what’s on the screen that he en­joyed mak­ing it.”

Yakuza got a HD over­haul as part of the Yakuza 1 & 2 HD Edi­tion re­leased on PS3 in 2012, mak­ing the en­tire se­ries and most of the spinoffs playable on PS3. And, for the first and only time in the se­ries’ his­tory, in 2013 the re­makes were re­leased on a non-Sony plat­form: Wii U. If Nin­tendo hard­ware sounds like an un­likely home for a game as vi­o­lent as Yakuza, well, that might ex­plain the poor sales.

When asked what he would have done dif­fer­ently given the chance to go back and make Yakuza again, Nagoshi replies: “Noth­ing at all. We pushed it as far as we could back then; there’s no fur­ther we could have gone.” The awards lit­ter­ing the size­able pri­vate of­fice of a man who boldly seized a gap in the mar­ket sug­gest that he might be right.

For­mat PlayS­ta­tion 2 Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Sega Ori­gin Ja­pan Re­lease 2005

Yakuza’s core bat­tle sys­tem has re­mained to this day. Com­bat plays out in in­stanced ar­eas, al­low­ing for ex­tra de­tail and plen­ti­ful items mak­ing for im­pro­vised weapons

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