The making of Shenmue: Yu Suzuki on the cult classic’s genesis, development – and its future

Yu Suzuki surprised and delighted a rapt audience during yesterday’s Shenmue postmortem.

Surprising precisely no-one, the first audience question asked at Yu Suzuki’s captivating and revealing Shenmue postmortem was about Shenmue III. Suzuki held the same line he’s held since the request was first made: “I sure want to make it. Of course I want to make it. If I get the right opportunity…”

Suzuki isn’t working on any other projects, he confirmed, but he did reveal an incredible amount about the creation of Shenmue, which began as a surprising and obscure prototype called ‘The Old Man and the Peach Tree’ before spiralling into a proposed eleven-chapter saga with restrictive Coke product-placement and AI-driven interior design.

Drawn from Suzuki’s dissatisfaction with the Japanese RPGs of the 1990s — he wished to fix things as simple as walk loops that don’t end when a character walks into a wall — The Old Man and the Peach Tree was an (unshown) prototype featuring full 3D graphics and cinematic presentation telling the story of a man, Taro, on the quest to find a great martial arts master Ryu, potentially masquerading as a lazy beggar who requests a peach to eat.

Further inspired by a research trip to China, Suzuki evolved this concept into a plot with four acts and four concepts: Introduction, sadness. Development: departure. Denoument: fight. Conclusion: starting afresh. It’s here that you can begin to see what Shenmue would become, with the first act of what had become Virtua Fighter RPG: Akira’s Story following the theme of sadness with Akira losing his father, the “development” following the theme of departure with Akira leaving for China.

We awarded Suzuki’s opus an 8 in our December 2000 Shenmue review.

Surprisingly, Suzuki’s next step was to compose an orchestral suite with four corresponding movements, which he provided to a scenario writer to listen to while developing a more detailed narrative. “I thought that if only game developers were involved we might be too literal in approach,” he said. “So I brought in screenwriters and movie directors and playwrights for what I called ‘borderless development.’”

After “a long battle,” they had completed an eleven chapter story. Again, unusually Suzuki commissioned an illustration to represent each chapter as a key inspiration point. “Up to this time the game had been targeted for Saturn, but in 1997 I decided to target the next Sega console,” he continued. “I thought about the features that would now be possible.” At this point, Suzuki drafted an incredibly ambitious feature list, managed down to the individual hour of play he intended.

“I wanted five hours of movie scenes. Four hours of fighting multiple enemies. Four hours of searching, because if it’s an RPG, you’re definitely looking for items. Because we imagined the environment would be very large, eight hours of movement and conversation. Four hours of study and training in martial arts. Four hours in the ‘dungeons’ and four hours of chapter ‘interconnects’ as I was thinking of a structure where players could return to places they had visited and continue to play. 45 hours – a game that could be played for a long time.”

“I was thinking of a structure where
players could return to places they had
visited and continue to play. 45 hours – a game that could be played for a long time.”

With all this in mind, in 1998 Suzuki changed the title of the game to Shenmue, and while the game was originally intended to be the first two of eleven chapters, Suzuki admitted that “the open world had turned out to be much more work, so I changed each of the eleven chapters into their own game. So what was Virtua Fighter: Akira’s Story became Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka.”

This version of the game had three new keywords underpinning its development: ‘leisurely’, ‘fully’ and ‘gently’. “Rather than following one thing I wanted the player to be able to freely choose,” continued Suzuki. “We required a vast city, substories, sub quests and minigames; we’d need to place shops, clerks and passer-bys and make sure there was enough content for conversation. Our aim was a play-space where whoever you are, whatever you are doing, you don’t get sick of it.”

To ensure this play-space could be large enough, the team hit upon an unusual solution for data compression – “Without compression,” Suzuki said, “fifty to sixty CD-ROMS would have been required.”

As a result, the game used a variety of systems to generate the environment from seeds: from trees, which were grown algorithmically, to even the layout of rooms. “We built a program that simulated the thought process of an interior designer,” he explained. “The AI would construct a layout that matches the shape of the room, while also ensuring the player could traverse the room.”

Our recent Shenmue retrospective looked back at the impact of Yu Suzuki’s Dreamcast epic.

The heavy use of new AI techniques had some interesting results, too. All NPCs were controlled by AI that set their routines to a realistic timetable, though one late bug found the entire warehouse district of the game emptied of people. “In the morning, all the NPCs went to buy breakfast in the convenience store before going to work,” he said. “The shop became too crowded and all the NPCs got stuck, because they couldn’t get out.” The solution? Oddly simple. “We increased the size of the automatic door, and limited the occupancy.”

“We had over 300 people working by the end of the project; yet we had no project management tools in the mid-90s,” Suzuki concluded. “We just used an order sheet that was an item list in Excel! That item list never decreased, at one point we had over 10,000 items in the list. It’s frightening, we finished the project basically by pushing pieces of paper around.”

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