The unlikely return of Shenmue

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Yu Suzuki speaks exclusively to games™ as we look at how his beloved series has returned, the role of the fans, and what we can expect now it’s funded

here were tears shed. People lost their cool on live broadcasts. And fans who had been working for the last three years to bring their beloved Shenmue back from vapourware purgatory felt a sense of relief that the fight was finally over. “It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders after three and a half years of daily grind, trying to conduct the most uphill of all videogame campaigns from cliff tops and office toilets and hospital beds,” Team Yu community founder James Hamill tells us. “Yet I’m sure it was only a fraction of the relief felt by Suzuki-san after fourteen long years of ‘Where’s Shenmue III? Are you making Shenmue III? When’s Shenmue III coming out?’.”

When Shenmue III’s Kickstarter campaign was announced on Sony’s E3 press conference stage, it ended a 14-year wait for firm news on a sequel to the Dreamcast and Xbox release. Most had given up on ever seeing Yu Suzuki’s tale of a young martial artist seeking revenge for the murder of his father being finished. Yet here it was, alive again after a concerted fan campaign and with the support of Sony to get it off the ground. But as the confetti settled to the ground, celebration has given way to confusion. So, we caught up with Yu Suzuki, co-director Cedric Biscay of Shibuya Productions and James Hamill, one of the leading voices of the #SaveShenmue campaign that made it all possible.

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“If there is no noise about Shenmue during those past years, nobody cares about this game except hardcore fans,” says Biscay, whose company is helping to bring Yu Suzuki’s vision to life, working alongside Ys Net on the marketing and promotion of the game.

“You know, I am a very big fan of Enemy Zero on Sega Saturn from Kenji Eno (RIP my friend) There is no noise about that game, so it might be difficult to make a remake or something… I hope I am wrong.”
Once the Kickstarter began, it took just 102 minutes to reach $1 million, a record for a videogame Kickstarter campaign, and reached its $2 million goal in eight hours. For the game’s creator, who must have wondered all these years, despite vocal online support, just how committed the fans were, it was a stunning moment. “It was completely unexpected and a big surprise,” Suzuki admits. “I became acutely aware of how the fans felt towards Shenmue having waited in anticipation these 14 years.”

But delight gave way to doubt quickly as the exact nature of the final game and the sources of funding began to be questioned. What was Sony putting into the game? Was the money pledged going to partners or to Ys Net itself? On the money side, everything was tackled in a frank release from Yu Suzuki insisting that while additional funding was being sought, the Kickstarter money was going directly to the game and fulfilling pledge rewards. No one else would be profiting from the campaign.

J3GXu16oxpHJ36c6NduarhtjLyWDrtXI4b1dtn6y4HABut what of the game itself? Suzuki was good enough to tackle some key issues head on with us. Is the look of the game we’ve seen so far final? “We are currently in the early development stage, but I am not satisfied with the look of Ryo’s face,” he reveals. “Improvements will be made as we go along.” What about music and art from the previous games? Would they be reused? “Yes, we are planning to use them.” Will arcades comes back? “It will depend on the budget.” Will the battle system be similar to Virtua Fighter again? “I would like to see the battle system evolve towards one that matches the world of Shenmue.” And how many of the team worked on the original? “At least a few of the former members will be on board,” Suzuki says.

In fact, Ys Net is being supported on the development side by Neilo Inc. in Japan. This studio was founded by Takeshi Hirai, a system programmer on Shenmue and Shenmue II. Shibuya Productions is offering promotional support with its expertise in cross-media entertainment and bridging the East/West gap. “I am co producer of Shenmue III, which means I am in charge with Yu-san to make it happen, gather partners, and promote,” Biscay clarifies for us. “As you know, it took more than 14 years in order to announce Shenmue III, Shibuya Productions has an active role concerning that announcement.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why there was some concern over Shibuya’s role though is that it’s a relatively unknown name, but Biscay gave us a little back story on how his company became involved. “In 2013, I invited Yu-san to Monaco, and at that time we discussed how we could work together. Step by step, we talked about Shenmue III in Tokyo and San Francisco and after two years of negotiations, and many glasses of amazing wine, we finally did it.”

More importantly, he’s a fan of the series, having played the original games (in Japanese no less) and wants Suzuki’s legacy to remain intact. “First of all, it’s necessary to respect what Shenmue is, and that’s why Yu-san is the only one in this world able to lead that project,” Biscay insists to us. “For example, if someone else had to lead this project, I would not be interested to be involved. We care about and respect the fans’ expectations, and we also have to fit the market in order to get new players.”

fter 14 years, expectations are high. We asked Hamill what it is about the series so far that has helped it build such a devoted legion of fans. “I’ve seen the personal connection that people have with this game, the way it’s changed lives and shaped people’s thoughts and behaviours,” he tells us. “It’s become cliché to say it, but it’s more than a game; it’s an experience. Of course it has its quirks, its idiosyncrasies. What some will find immersive and charming, others will find boring and twee. But for those who invest in the rich, esoteric universe of Shenmue, the returns are incalculable. The fire in the hearts of so many fans fourteen years after the latest chapter is testament to that.”

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We wanted to ask Yu Suzuki about the hiatus and the long wait for this sequel, but he didn’t want to get into the particulars of things with Sega. However, he was clear on a couple of key points: “No, production did not get started previously,” he says. But was there ever a discussion at Sega about making a sequel? “As to whether there were or were not any plans, I would guess not.”

Even the #SaveShenmue campaign appeared to fall on deaf ears at Sega, despite organised and consistent attempts to get its attention. “Over three years of Tweetathons bombarding Sega with pleas for Shenmue’s revival drew no response at all from their social media team, besides apparent shutdown on the third of the month. But that was expected,” says Hamill. “One of my initial hopes for the campaign was to generate so much attention, from both the public and the media, that people higher up at Sega would have to answer for these public displays of ignorance towards their customers. Of course I wasn’t counting on Sega working twice as hard as we were to jeopardise their own image in other ways.”

14 years is a lot of time to build up some resentment, but while Sega wasn’t paying much attention, the rest of the world was. Hamill gave us a little background on how the unifying voice of the fans, #SaveShenmue, came about and became a social media phenomenon. “In March 2012 we launched the Shenmue Tweetathon, which would last all day on the third of every month. Whereas a petition can be looked at once and forgotten about, the Tweetathon became a way to bring our message back to the forefront on a routine basis,” he explains.
“The hashtag back then was #GiveYuTheShenmueLicense, an attempt to accentuate the distinction between Suzuki’s desire to continue the series and Sega’s reluctance to commit financially. I think it helped us change perceptions about their respective roles and build a more focused following behind Suzuki, the man who sought to enact change in the status quo.

“But while it got our foot in the door of the public consciousness, with even the esteemed games™ tweeting their support [take a look: bit.ly/gtmshenmue], the growth of the campaign and our increased courting of the likes of Sony to lend a hand meant that sooner or later we would have to simplify the hashtag into something more catchy and diverse, and so in January 2014 it became #SaveShenmue.”

50289c15a94cf55c5f427793f642c1f6_originalWhat has emerged is an understanding that Shenmue’s return was always going to be conditional on it remaining true to its original identity. As the Kickstarter campaign and its stretch goals have shown, the base game Yu Suzuki wants to create remains staunchly in line with what he has created before. It’s been planned in a modular fashion, allowing for the game to progress with or without certain features if the funding didn’t reach the fullest amount. As it stands, the Rapport System that will reflect Ryo’s relationship with Shenhua depending on your conversation choices and behaviour will be added. Similarly, a Skill Tree System has been funded, allowing for greater customisation of abilities beyond picking up scrolls, which we understand will return from the previous games.

An area named Baisha Village has also been funded, with Suzuki promising a fascinating new element to the story and a massive battle event, inspired by classic warring kingdoms tales. The watercolour painting-inspired Choubu area was not funded by the end of the campaign and neither was the Bailu Village, an area from the close of Shenmue II, although Suzuki has not ruled out a continued drive for funding through Paypal between now and a proposed December 2017 release, much as Star Citizen has done since it closed its Kickstarter campaign.

As we understand it, these modular elements would have expanded and embellished the tale Yu Suzuki has had planned since the original Shenmue in 1999 and if they don’t make the game, nothing will be lost that would be detrimental to that plan. “The original story has not changed,” he insists. “I am continually thinking how to turn that story into a game.” And Suzuki doesn’t seem content to only make Shenmue III. His original dream was for more games and he refuses to give up on it. “The initial story line contains 11 chapters. I thought about condensing the story in three, but I thought that would necessitate cutting too much story, so I decided not to go that route. Many fans really want to see the whole story.”

While the funding campaign has felt a little muddled at times and the structure a little unusual, Hamill seems content to let Shenmue III rest in the hands of the man who made it, since that was all anyone had really been fighting for from the start. “I want to see the game that Suzuki wants to make,” he says, likely in agreement with most long-time fans of the series. “Whatever that happens to be, it’s the right direction. His commitment to delivering the full story instead of cutting it down to one last game is the gutsiest move a designer in his position could make, and he deserves all the respect in the world for staying true to his vision. I trust that he’ll do both himself and the fans – all of whom are now his fans – proud.”

“He always brings innovation in his games,” summarises Biscay on Yu Suzuki’s approach and the chance for game-changing new ideas in Shenmue III. “Depending on the final budget we have, he will be able to innovate once again. One thing I can say is our way of making that game is very innovative already. The way we’ve gathered partners, the Kickstarter campaign, etc. We are totally away from what would be considered standard and I really love it.”

For more amazing access to classic game developers you should keep up with our Retro section in every issue of games™. In issue 165 we speak to the makers of MDK, the former head of Sega America and, of course, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka.

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Originally published in games™ 164 [Aug 2015]