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.”
THE CHANCE TO FREELY EXPLORE A FICTIONALISED REDLIGHT DISTRICT WAS A MAJOR PART OF YAKUZA’S SUCCESS
“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