[Legendary game creator Yu Suzuki, soon to leave Sega, sits down with Gamasutra to take a look at the past and onward into the future -- taking in everything from '80s assembly programming to the possibilities he sees for new mobile and social platforms.]
Yu Suzuki has been on the forefront of game design and technology since he entered the industry. It seemed as though with every game he made, he was not only pushing game technology to new levels, he was inventing a new genre. From After Burner II, to Out Run, to Virtua Fighter, to Shenmue, Suzuki has constantly blazed trails.
Unfortunately, following the commercial underperformance of the groundbreaking Shenmue series, which remains incomplete to this day, Suzuki has operated below the radar.
The last major project he announced for Sega was a new fighting game, Psy-Phi, which though tested in arcades in 2006 was never released for any platform.
Have his contributions to Sega been dialed back because of the fate of Shenmue, like many Japanese developers who preside over unsuccessful projects? Or has he, like many Japanese creators who rise through the ranks, been relegated to a purely managerial role?
Gamasutra recently sat down with him to find out what he's been up to recently, to reminisce about the past, and discover his plans for the future.
Let’s start with the obvious mystery. What have you been up to for the past 10 years or so?
Yu Suzuki: Well, in 2008 I established YS NET, my current company. I'll be leaving my current job at Sega this September, and after that point I'll remain on as an advisor. So I've formally been with both companies from 2008 until September 2011. With the new company, I've been doing pretty much what I personally want to do myself.
Do you want to talk at all about before that -- between Shenmue II and the formation of YS NET?
YS: Well, in 2004 I was... what was the name of the group? The names changed a lot, but as far as the games are concerned, I was involved with STV [Sega Race TV], and also with Psy-Phi, a game that was announced but ultimately wound up not getting released. With STV I was just the producer, not doing any director stuff with it. On Psy-Phi, I was director until the point it was cancelled.
There was one other title as well, and that one also got stopped by Sega midway. But maybe that was for the better, because the Sega of the time was not in all that good shape, and they were shrinking down a lot of projects... maybe that part of it doesn't need to get written down. [laughs] I don't want to impact Sega's image.
I don’t think that was a secret to anyone. With the new social game Shenmue Town, why go with Yahoo! Appli instead of Android or iPhone or something like that?
YS: Well, in Japan, there's an outfit called DeNA that's launched the Mobage Town network service. That, along with Gree, occupies most of the market share in Japan right now. So we went with that platform to start out with, but it's been our intention from the start for this to be a multiplatform project, so we're thinking about smartphone support now.
iPhone seems to have really picked up in Japan; obviously it's doing well in the West, so it seems like the direction to go to make Western fans happy.
YS: And Android will pick up as well, too, won't it?
Yeah. I have Android.
YS: I don't think the exact platform will be much of a problem either way. Certainly there are changes that would need to be made.
For most of your career, you were at the forefront of technology, pushing things forward in the arcades or consoles. I assume that was a conscious choice back then -- are you consciously not moving in that direction now, or is that something you're not really thinking about?
YS: I do still want to challenge frontiers along those lines.
What do you think is the direction that kind of technology is going now? Where do you see it going -- like, cloud computing or scaling down into smaller devices?
YS: I see a lot of possibilities in all of it -- networking, cloud computing, portable devices. Apple has a technology called AirPlay that lets you stream music wirelessly, and I think that's where it's going to go -- you'll be streaming video and all sorts of other digital media from handhelds to large screens and playing games with lots of other people from your portable devices.
As long as someone can figure out a good direct play interface on the iPhone. It's not very good as a solo controller.
YS: Perhaps, but there's still a lot that can be done with that interface, too.
If you want to talk about it, what was your vision for [cancelled project] Shenmue Online?
YS: I wanted to do something MMO-like.
And how would you make that work within the Shenmue world, with everyone going about their daily life? Would you be able to play as a shopkeeper or something like that?
YS: I would have liked to have everyone living together in the same world, yeah. It's a town that players create as they enter the game and play it -- something like a multi-CPU system, with each player serving as a CPU.
How important do you think technology is to the design of a game? As you were evolving your designs, 3D was evolving, arcade boards were getting faster, and so on. Do you feel like game design pushed the technology; or did you feel constrained by tech in your designs?
YS: That's a hard question to answer, but the best way to do it, I suppose, is to say that you can make any game you like without the technology. Having advances in technology, however, does make it easier to evolve games, to take them to the next level.
Personally, I always want to make games that go hand-in-hand with new technology. Let's say there was some calculation that used to take two hours or so to finish. Then, suddenly, you find a new way to do it in software and hardware. That, in itself, opens up new doors and opportunities for games -- in AI, for example. It creates more opportunities for fun, the more CPU power you have. I think it can inherently lead to better games.
In the past, when Sega was also a hardware company, you perhaps had the ability to help shape that technology. Do you see yourself doing something like that in the future again?
YS: At the time, arcade hardware was the best out there in terms of performance, but after a while, that obviously ceased to be true. Sega proceeded along those lines for a while, but eventually they stopped, so certainly there's no way Sega is going to produce new high-performance hardware all of a sudden.
There's always the possibility of a partnership or something in the future, however. We can go to a hardware maker with a game concept they don't have, then we can work on it together. I started out as a programmer, on the software side, but by and large we were making hardware for the express purpose of the games I and everyone else at Sega were working on. It'd be nice if we could take that approach again sometime.
This is a silly side question, but who do you think was the best assembly programmer at the time?
YS: There were about four of five programmers at Sega who were really good -- I was the best, of course. [laughs] Or, at least, I was probably the best when it came to speed and optimization tricks.
That was a similar skill set to Naka. He did that Sega Master System Space Harrier port that was really crazy.
YS: Right, yeah. There were also Katagi [Hidekazu Katagi, coder of Fantasy Zone and Columns and chief programmer on Sakura Taisen] and someone who was behind the scenes on a lot of Sega [projects], Tojo, and Ikebuchi [Tooru Ikebuchi, co-programmer on Virtua Fighter, who later co-founded Dream Factory]. They were all really good at machine code. Mark Cerny, too.
We were talking about arcade boards for a minute -- what are you thoughts on the present state of arcades?
YS: That market certainly shrank too, didn't it? Well, it can't be helped! [laughs] You can't do much about it. There's lots of other fun things to do now -- YouTube, the internet, all kinds of things.
One of the main attractions of arcades is getting together with other people to play games in the same place. Do you see any similarities to online games in that regard?
YS: Network games allow you a larger base of players to interact with, is the thing. With an arcade, you had anywhere from a dozen to around a hundred people you could theoretically have as partners or opponents -- maybe 10 or 20, depending on the genre. With network games, though, there are tons more people, and a lot of opponents you never would've met offline either. It's really a different scene like that.
I'm also curious about your thoughts on the evolution of the fighting game genre; how it's evolved in 3D form since you were involved with it.
YS: It's really amazing that they've advanced the genre up to this point, I think. I mean, the first hardware we had to work with, we could generate only 300 polygons at the same time if we wanted to keep it at 60 frames per second.
Lately, with indie games, there's been a resurgence of that flat-shaded, high-FPS, low-polygon look. Have you noticed this trend at all?
YS: Really? I'm not familiar with that. I do like, though, how DirectX has gotten so easy to use that all sorts of people are making games now.
In the case of this stuff, I think it's people who have a nostalgia for how that looks, who think there's a sort of beauty to its simplicity.
YS: That primitive kind of look makes things easier to grasp, I suppose.
You mentioned that you're doing what you want to do now; is that Shenmue Town, or some other thing?
YS: Well, you could say that Shenmue Town is a step toward what comes next. I still want to make something with more of a fantasy/fantastic flavor. There are a lot of ideas I have in that area.
Do you still do any programming yourself?
YS: I hadn't done any in a while, but I've been going just a little with it just recently, for the first time in 15 years -- mainly simulation and algorithm checking and stuff. It's surprising how easy it is to pick up again.
You did most of your programming before C++ became a big thing, when assembly was still the main language. Do you feel the coding environment has changed much since the old days?
YS: In the past, we had things like assembly, Fortran, Pascal, Forth... We still had a lot of languages to work with, and I worked with all of those at one point or another. I never really had much resistance to learning new languages. I learned BASIC in the very beginning, though, and I still love BASIC as a language.
The latest BASICs, like Visual Basic, have a lot of C-like aspects to them. From my personal standpoint, though, I don't have much need to write final production code any longer; instead I can concentrate on logic and algorithms and other things like that. As a result, I never feel constrained by changes in language.
For a long time, we've had game directors that are seen as "famous," such as yourself. If the name is on a project, people get excited about it. That has always been about big games, and it seems like games are kind of getting smaller and more spread out with Facebook and iPhone games and things like that. Do you think there might be a next generation of directors of that nature, and where might they fit in to the new landscape?
YS: I think there will be a new generation, sure. Lately, the big makers pretty much make nothing but big franchise titles, right? Small companies can't compete with that sort of thing; projects with 4 billion [$50 million] or 6 billion yen [$75 million] budgets competing against those with 300 million yen [$3.7 million] budgets.
However, if you make nothing but these big titles, the game industry's going to falter because of it. So I think it's great that small developers can get into these new platforms and compete on there on a more level basis. It takes up less of their money, and if they get a hit, I think that'll lead to the directors getting attention from the media.
I've been thinking about that because -- everyone plays Angry Birds in the West, but does anyone know the designer of the game?
YS: Well, even at most Japanese companies back then, they told developers that they couldn't put their names into the game in the first place, because they were afraid some other company would headhunt us. So the industry kind of got off on a bad start from the beginning that way, didn't it? I suppose it's just a matter of people going out and publicizing themselves.
Even on a larger scale, a lot of Japanese companies still don't send their employees to GDC because they don't want them to be influenced by other people or talking to other people.
YS: That's one thing about the industry I really don't like at all, yeah. With the music industry, you see the composers and singers show up in the media constantly, after all. Everyone knows the directors and the screenwriters for films, too. Video games have become just as big as both of those industries, and yet there's still this drive to hide things from each other. It makes you realize how shallow the culture of gaming still is. They're all creative fields, right?
How much rein do you have to work on Sega products at the moment -- your old series?
YS: I pretty much have to negotiate with Sega on a one-by-one basis with that sort of thing.
When do you think we can expect to see something -- a new original IP from you and your company?
YS: There are lots of projects in the works, but until I can get a budget for them... [laughs]
The financing is always the hardest part.
YS: But, you know, if one of them becomes a hit, then again, that becomes the step up to the next level. I have a lot of original ideas in the works.