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GDC 2014: Shenmue Postmortem with Yu Suzuki

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Chances are, that if you’re a gamer of a certain age, you’ve heard of Shenmue. Yu Suzuki’s 2000 Dreamcast game was considered a watershed moment on one of the most critically beloved systems of all time. It redefined the action RPG and what gamers could expect from a game’s world, story, and characters.

A sweeping, dramatic tale of revenge that also simulated what would be considered at the time very mundane aspects of real life, Shenmue was a cornerstone for all future sandbox games, inspiring the Yakuza series, the GTA series, and many others. It was one of the first games to create a living, breathing city that felt like you were a part of it, and the little touches were revolutionary for their time. Ever-changing weather effects, NPCs that went about their daily life around you, usable vending machines and arcade games. It was a dramatic change of pace from the traditionally bare bones approach previous open world games were forced to take because of hardware limitations.

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Shenmue Producer/Director and Sega veteran Yu Suzuki gave a postmortem talk at GDC 2014 about the game, sharing a lot of fun information about the difficulties the team encountered and how they overcame them. Yu Suzuki was well known for making arcade games such as Space Harrier, and the average playtime for an arcade game was three minutes. Suzuki wanted to make a game “with no such limit”, and this was a driving force behind Shenmue. The original game prototype was created on the Sega Saturn and was called, rather unassumingly, the Old Man and the Peach Tree. The prototype was set in 1950s China and was based around a simple story of a character named Taro looking for a kung fu master named Ryu.

Eventually this prototype evolved into what was known as Virtua Fighter RPG Akira’s Story. Basing the future game on the popular franchise made sense at the time and would allow the combat to use Virtua Fighter’s engine. The main character was to be a teenage version of Akira, and like the prototype, would be set in China. It would be a full size RPG with full voice work, an enormous task for the time.

The Chinese setting was heavily inspired by Suzuki’s trip to China in the 90s. At one point he met a master martial artist during the trip, Bajiquan Grand Master Yu, and related this tale: “The grandmaster drank too much when he met me, and his Bajiquan style became drunken master style.” Suzuki showed several slides of his trip to China, a lot of which served as an inspiration to recreating the regular street life in the game.

Suzuki also took an original approach in incorporating traditional filmmakers into making the game, blending their understanding of camerawork, storytelling, and the cinematic experience with the traditional game development team. He referred to this process as “Borderless Development”. Naturally, there was some conflict between the filmmakers and the traditional game development team, but eventually the team settled on a massive 11 chapter story and a template of five basic in-game camera techniques to give the game its cinematic look.

At this point the Dreamcast was on the horizon, and the team began to switch their focus from the Saturn. Interestingly, the team had no concrete idea of what the new system’s specs would be, so they worked off of Suzuki’s predictions. The project’s initial code name, Project Guppy, now became Project Berkeley, and Virtua Fighter RPG Akira’s Story became Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka.

Akira Concept Art

The goal at this point in the project was to create a 45 hour game, but given the massive scope and scale of the project, Suzuki related a startling fact: “with the technology at the time, 50 CD-roms would have been required.” Seeing as that was impossible, the game was slimmed down to three discs worth of content via an in-depth system of data compression and conserving resources wherever possible.

Naturally, there were hiccups and bugs to overcome. “One day it was reported there were no people (NPCs) in the warehouse; it took a long time to fix this bug, and the cause was actually a convenience store. It turned out that all the workers went to buy breakfast at the convenience store at the same time, and it became congested. A lot of the NPCs got stuck inside there because they couldn't get out. We had to make the door wider and create a maximum occupancy in the store to fix it.”

Walking animations were also being swapped between characters, leading to some dock workers walking “like Marilyn Monroe”. In one case the walking animation was actually swapped over to a cat, who was now walking on two legs. How had this happened? Suzuki jokingly admitted: “We had cut corners and used exactly the same skeleton for cats as human beings.”

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The game was also one of the first to feature in-game product placement, in this case Coca-Cola and Timex. This too, had its own special problems. “When we supplied footage to Coke for approval, we were told “you may not place a vending machine so that it sticks out in the road”. We then had to go back and check the location of every vending machine in the game and adjust their positions.”

Suzuki summarized his thoughts on implementing a lot of mundane, or unusual aspects of regular life into the game: “I did believe that if you implement things that are not done normally, then you will eventually see an effect that creates originality and uniqueness; there are 250 characters in Shenmue 2, [...] and they’re still living lives even if you’re not paying close attention to them, and it brought out the life of the Shenmue world.”

Check out the gallery below for images from the event, and head over to Shenmue Wikia for more info about this classic game!

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