Toshihiro Nagoshi on the new Yakuza game and the future of Japanese game development

Toshihiro Nagoshi

One of the longest lines at last weekend’s Tokyo Game Show was for a special trailer for Ryu Ga Gotoku: Isshin, the forthcoming spin-off from the popular Sega series known in the West as Yakuza. Why would gamers line up so long just to watch a trailer? If you have to ask, you may be underestimating the immense popularity of the series in Japan.

Isshin will be a launch title on PS4 in Japan in February, with a PS3 version released on the same date and Vita Crossplay of some form too. The game is set in the Meiji Era, Japan’s great restoration, and re-casts Yakuza’s Kazuma Kiryu and chums as famous historical samurai – sort of a loose follow-up to 2008’s Edo Era-set Yakuza: Kenzan.

I caught up with series creator and Yakuza Studio head Toshihiro Nagoshi to find out more about the game and its chances of a localised release in English, as well as his thoughts on PS4 and where the Japanese game industry is headed.

The Yakuza games offer an ever-larger map to explore. How big will historical Kyoto be this time, since you’re making the map from scratch?

It will be a bit smaller than our recent games, but a lot bigger than the Kyoto in Kenzan. Also, the map itself might not seem large but there will be a lot of rooms inside the buildings that you can enter, so the total will still be many times bigger.

Does being tied to the PS4 launch date put some pressure on you?

Yes, for sure; it’s our first time to make a launch title. The team were worried that we’d need more time. But we’ve made Yakuza games on PS2 and PS3, and in that time we’ve attracted many new fans, so we have fond memories of working on PlayStation formats. We feel like we owe it to PlayStation fans to be there at the start of PS4, even if it means a bit of pressure.

Yakuza Isshin will be a launch title on PS4 in Japan, with a PS3 version released on the same date.

Yakuza 1&2 HD came out for Wii U; were you not tempted to take the series multiplatform from now on?

The PlayStation format has a lot of users, so we knew that our audience is there. With the HD versions, we had already made the game once for PS2 and then in HD, so it was quite easy to port it to Wii U, whereas [porting] a whole new title is a bit tricky. I was interested in the Wii U format and curious about how many Wii U users would be interested in the Yakuza series, and the only way to find that out was to try releasing something. It was an experiment. But the sales weren’t great.

Why are you releasing the game simultaneously on PS4 and PS3?

We had committed to making a PS4 launch title, but when I thought about the users – well, the PS4 is cheaper than hardware used to be, but it’s still not cheap, so I decided we’d be letting our fans down if we didn’t also release a PS3 version. That’s why we’re making both versions available on the same day.

How will the game connect with Vita?

We will release a Vita version that will work with Crossplay, but we haven’t decided the business model yet, like whether it will be a free download or not. For now, we can only confirm that it will be available at launch and compatible with both the PS3 and PS4 versions of Yakuza: Isshin. We’re still worrying about the details…

Considering the poor sales of Wii U and the popularity in Japan of handhelds, do you think there is an audience for next-gen PlayStation and Xbox consoles in Japan?

It’s true that handhelds sell better these days. But people were saying that things would be difficult for the PS3 and the 360, and yet now here we are with the PS4 and the One coming out. I think this will be the deciding round. This is where we’ll find out whether there will ever be a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox, uh, Two. I think the future will be decided this generation.

The mobile and handheld business will continue to change too, and that will certainly influence us. Just as how music downloads replaced cassettes and made stereo systems obsolete, it’s entirely possible that game consoles will disappear.

Would you like to make a smartphone game or a browser game?

Yes, I would. That’s the biggest install base, after all. But each device has different spec, so it’s a nightmare to develop for those. Having consoles that have a standard spec is convenient for us.

Puzzle & Dragons is making ridiculous money in Japan as a free-to-play title. Are you tempted to try something like that?

Yeah, that’s amazing. But [free to play] games rarely sustain that momentum for more than two years. It’s bringing in lots of money every month now, but it’ll be down to a trickle in 18 months and over in two years. On a console, if you make something good it can last 10 years or 20, but even the best free to play games don’t outlast two years. GungHo probably knows that, and is trying to avoid it – maybe that’s why it’s releasing a 3DS version of Puzzle & Dragons. I’m interested to see how that goes.

GungHo is targeting the casual market very precisely with that game. And of course Nintendo had great success targeting that market with the original Wii, but it didn’t translate to success with Wii U. If you were going to make a free-to-play Yakuza game for smartphones, how would you find that balance between the core fans and casual gamers?

I do have an idea for how it could work as an online game, but not as a free-to-play game. In principal I think it’s good to take an IP and try lots of different business models, but there are some things that just don’t fit together, and there’s no point in trying to force it. I don’t think it’s necessary for Yakuza or GTA to become free-to-play; these sort of games should be sold as a complete package. DLC is fine, but a free-to-play model just doesn’t seem right.

Do you plan to eventually localise Yakuza 5 for the West?

We don’t have a plan for that at the moment. The Yakuza Studio team is a fixed size, and we have to choose between forging ahead with the next game or localising the one that just came out. This time the size of the game was so large, so rather than localising that game we chose to focus our manpower on the new game. But we get asked about it a lot. We get lots of complaints!

Yakuza 5 was never released in the West, and looks unlikely to ever reach EU and US shores.

When you localised Yakuza 4, you removed the Answer X Answer pop-culture quiz mini-game because you felt Westerners wouldn’t know the answers. Since Isshin has a historical setting, won’t that be even harder to localise?

Well, even many Japanese people might not know the history. But we understand when we see a game set in Ancient Rome, you know? So long as you reach them with the human drama, suits or kimono, it doesn’t matter. Japan or overseas, I’m not worried about that.

So Isshin could possibly be localised someday?

I’d definitely love to reach the whole world, haha, if we have the manpower and the money to do it.

Will the numbered series continue with a Yakuza 6? 

Right now we’re focusing on Isshin, and then after that… Japan is in a recession, and even with the Olympics coming up we don’t know when it will recover, so to have a series that can continue even in such tough conditions is something that makes me very grateful. So if there’s a chance, I’d like to do it. The question is how to grow with the next game. Our biggest rival will be Yakuza 5, which has so much volume and quality, so we’d need to be able to do something even better and that can still surprise people, which will be really hard!

Speaking of the Olympics, the yakuza are bound to land some juicy construction contracts in the run-up to 2020. Maybe that could be the basis for a Yakuza game. 

I can’t answer that, haha. But I do hope the Olympics will be a chance for Japan to attract the world’s attention.

Will Yakuza Isshin reach Western markets? “If we have the manpower and the money to do it,” says Nagoshi.

What do you think it is that Westerners like about the Yakuza series?

I think they’re the kind of enthusiasts who like to experience something new. I don’t think it’s necessarily because they’re interested in Japan; the games have such a mix of essences, even to a Japanese player, and I think it’s that mix that appeals to people overseas. It’s not that they like the content or the battle system or the drama; it’s the mixed-up street-festival atmosphere that grabs them.

The Yakuza games often have Japanese celebrities make guest appearances. Would you ever include a Western celebrity, like Kiefer Sutherland or Ellen Page?

Well, we could use a Westerner celebrity as a voice actor, but they’re so expensive! Japanese celebrities are much cheaper!