Shenmue – 2000 Developer Interview
This Shenmue interview from 2000 goes over the general design process of the seminal Dreamcast game. Highlights include alternate titles, the special role of the interior designer Sega hired, and the origins of a certain cat. There is also a special focus on the music and sound effects in the latter half. This interview was found at the GSLA, a Japanese site that preserves interviews from print sources.
Yu Suzuki – Producer
Keiji Okayasu – Director
Masanori Oe – Main Designer
Eigo Kasahara – Planner
Takenobu Mitsuyoshi – Sound
Yuzo Koshiro – Composer
Manabu Takimoto – Interior Designer
Suzuki: Kasahara made up a lot of the names, including Ryo Hazuki, Xiuying Hong, and the title Shenmue itself. He really did a lot there.
Kasahara: I probably have more Chinese magazines and reading materials under my desk than you’d find in your local bookstore. (laughs) I decided early on that kanji would be a better fit for Shenmue, so I pushed for that image with the rest of the team. I liked the euphony of the kanji, and the characters themselves could carry their own meanings.
Suzuki: Kasahara’s favorite title was actually Genpuuki [玄風記] (“Tale of the Mysterious Wind”), not Shenmue.
Kasahara: Genpuuki was almost chosen, but at the very end of the development we realized it had some problems. The kanji were too difficult to read, and we weren’t sure it would appeal to a mass audience. Shenmue had the advantage of being a new title that no one had ever heard before, and it had a nice ring to it. As for genpuuki, I still really loved it, so I asked Suzuki at the end whether it could still be used somewhere, and he allowed me to use it as the name of the ship Ryo departs Japan with, the Genpuumaru [玄風丸]. That satisfied me. (laughs)
Suzuki: There were a lot of different candidates for the title. There were titles in English, Italian, even Greek. (laughs) We had every kind of title imaginable.
Kasahara: As for Ryo’s name, to be honest it wasn’t decided until just before the announcement party. Late one night I was called into the Suzuki’s office, and on the board he had two names written: Ryo Hazuki and Ryo Kamizaki. He asked me which I thought was better, and we talked it over for a long time. In the end it was Ryo Hazuki that was chosen.
Design and Characters
Oe: The thing we took the greatest care with for the design was, as you might imagine, capturing a sense of reality. I think we really did all we could there. It wasn’t just about creating realistic pictures: the important part came after the drawings were done. The key was whether it would look realistic in-game. We’d try creating new visuals, then we’d have to talk it over carefully with the programmers… that whole process was very difficult.
In pursuit of this greater sense of realism, we also made sure every street was consistent with Suzuki’s overall vision. All our designs had to be carefully coordinated with the events of the game too. The event team would tell us such and such an event would take place here, so our designs had to be very detailed.
Suzuki: I think there are over 300 different characters in Shenmue.
Oe: We had a very short time to create all the people of Yokosuka City, but we were able to do it because of a suprisingly efficient method we employed.
Takimoto: We just took people’s full names and personality profiles at Sega. (laughs)
Oe: Even Takimoto shows up as a character! He kept saying “make me an F1 racer!!” but he ended up as some guy living near a construction site. (laughs)
Suzuki: Kasahara is responsible for the Shenmue Passport disc.
Kasahara: For Shenmue, we actually created detailed backstories for all the characters and locations. With the Shenmue Passport players can learn about the details and connections that we couldn’t show in the game. There’s a lot of hidden relationships, for example.
Takimoto: The cat Ryo finds is actually modeled after my cat. I had a picture on my desk of him when he was a little kitten, and one day a designer came by and asked if he could borrow it. The cat’s name was Sasuke, by the way.
Suzuki: Ah, I remember that. We called him Sasuke during the planning phase too. We knew it had been modeled after Takimoto’s cat, so we wanted to leave the name as Sasuke, as a remnant of that. (laughs) But eventually someone was like, “Who named this cat Sasuke?!” and we had to change it. (laughs)
Working with an Interior Designer
Suzuki: Takimoto assisted us with the interior design for the world of Shenmue. Since the player can walk around this world freely, we thought having an architecht design the buildings would help us achieve a totally new level of realism.
Takimoto: The first thing I did was make several conceptual sketches for the buildings, and once those designs got approved, I helped out with various details as the work progressed, checking things here and there.
Suzuki: After that we had him stick around in the development room, as a player. (laughs) We wanted the perspective of someone who’s not in the game industry.
Oe: The work Takimoto does in the design industry is actually very close to what we did here: he creates the conceptual illustrations that match people’s vision, and then others do the modeling and finishing work.
Takimoto: I began working on the Shenmue development around March of 98. I took the basic designs they had and made a variety of sketches on them, about 200 in total I think.
Suzuki: The first thing we wanted to know Takimoto’s design process. We had a lot of questions about the “rules” of interior design.
Takimoto: Imagine you enter a room and no one is there. But you want to have the player recognize, through the “traces” left by objects in the room, that someone was here. It was sort of like, “how do we create the scent of a human here?” (laughs)
Suzuki: Ryo’s house is designed to look like an actual house from 1986. Conceptually, our image was a Japanese Buddhist temple (otera). We wanted the building itself to evoke the image of a 500 year old temple.
Oe: And we also added various touches that would make players feel the nostalgia of that era. Put all that together and you’ve got the Hazuki residence!
The Sounds of Shenmue
Suzuki: Since Shenmue is a game you play at a relaxed pace, we wanted music that wouldn’t be too noisy or distracting to the player. That’s why I told Mitsuyoshi, “why don’t you try listening to some sutras first.” (laughs) For example, take the babbling of a stream, the sound of footsteps, or a bird’s warbling… these are sounds that no one is bothered by, and they have no melody to them. But to the extent that there is a melody, after listening to it for 3 or 4 hours, it will start to wear on your mind and annoy you… as such, my closest image for the music of Shenmue was buddhist sutras. There’s something mysterious about them, and I asked Mitsuyoshi to try and match that image.
Mitsuyoshi: What I tried to achieve for Shenmue was not “Takenobu Mitsuyoshi’s music.” Rather, I tried to find the melody that lies in the sound effects themselves, something that used sound effects for melody and rythym. When you design the music for an arcade game, your goal is to get the customer in the game center to stop and take notice of your game. Basically, it's kind of like you’re trying to make a “commercial” for the game: how many people can you draw in, in the short span of time they hear the music? That was what I pursued, compositionally, in my previous work.
With Shenmue I’m creating the total opposite. It’s music that you don’t really notice, but if it wasn’t there, the scene would feel barren. It was very nuanced, detailed work, and very challenging in many ways. But because the scale of this project was so large, it did afford me a lot of opportunities to experiment. As a composer I feel like I leveled up in a big way.
Suzuki: We had a huge number of requests for the sound effects this time too.
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah. Actually, this was the first time we hired and worked with an outside company that specializes in sound effects. They created the sound effects, then we would figure out how to add them to the game. This is a small thing but I think it shows how Shenmue has raised the bar for us in terms of the game development process. This sound fx company’s approach is very different from ours, you see. They do sound work for movies and dramas, so they have a totally different perspective from us, and I think we learned a lot about sound from them.
Suzuki: Thanks to all the voicework, the biggest struggle for us was the amount of memory.
Okayasu: Which is funny, since we started off saying how easy it would be! (laughs)
Suzuki: Yeah… we miscalculated there for sure. I don’t know who made that estimation, but they were off by an order of magnitude: we needed a full 20x more space! At first we said it would all fit one disc maybe, then 2 discs, then 3… and we kept adding new things to the game, it was getting crazy.
Okayasu: All of a sudden things got really busy, and there were a lot more people on the team. (laughs)
Suzuki: Yeah, now that you mention it, that’s true.
Okayasu: No one ever explicitly said we were ramping up… it just happened without anyone noticing. (laughs)
Oe: Everyone was really excited at the announcement party though. We put a lot of effort into that!
Suzuki: It was certainly a long project though. We had to pull many overnighters and weekend trips together as a team.
Kasahara: Every Friday was our regular “Shenmue Weekends.” We’d use the lodging Sega had in Zushi and work on it all weekend.
Working with Yuzo Koshiro
Koshiro: Actually, back when I was a gamer I created a Spacer Harrier-ish doujinshi. (laughs) I brought it to Sega and showed it to Yu Suzuki. Even though I was just some random player, he listened to me like I was someone close to him. That left a huge impression on me, just how attentive he was to players, and how important that is. As for the Shenmue team, I joined in August 1998. Mitsuyoshi asked me to be his pupil. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: Hah, no way, it wasn’t like that. (laughs) I talked with Yu Suzuki about bringing Koshiro on board, and it went from there. Before Shenmue started, I had met Koshiro once before when we shared the stage at a Roland event. After that Suzuki asked me, “Do you want to try working with Koshiro?” And of course I did! I’ve long admired Koshiro and thought he was cool. I’ve followed his work pretty closely for the last 10 years. (laughs)
Koshiro: This time I did an arrange version of Mitsuyoshi’s Shenmue theme. I wish I had more time to work on it though.
Mitsuyoshi: We didn’t have much time to record these songs, and I remember you had difficulties with the recording environment.
Koshiro: It was my first time making music with headphones. I knew I’d be playing with other musicians here at Sega so it made sense, but normally I always listen to the sound through speakers in my studio as I write. So using headphones exclusively was a challenge, but I think it was a good experience for me.
Mitsuyoshi: Koshiro came to Sega about once a week. He knows a lot about hardware, so amazingly he was able to complete songs entirely on his own and bring them in, ready for playback on the Dreamcast.
As for the composition process, I would say it was less sequencer-based, and more track-based with waveforms, like you’d do in a DAW.
Koshiro: It worked out alright–I mean, I get bored if I always do the same thing. (laughs) I like to try out as many new approaches as I can.
Mitsuyoshi: We’d have “sound meetings” every week, and everyone would present the songs they’d finished that week. Everyone was writing their own songs. Koshiro would come in with a song and it was like, “oh, he was thinking of the same scene.”
Koshiro: For Shenmue, the music was written before the scenes were completed, you see. When I was writing we only had some preliminary mock-up images. But it was like, what are we supposed to do with these? (laughs) No one knew. One picture they gave us, for instance, was of a drainage ditch covered with old boards. What song is supposed to match this? No one knew. Since it’s these dirty old boards, should it be a “dirty” song..?
Suzuki: Shenmue 2 will be the next evolutionary step for the Shenmue series; I think of the first game like an egg, in that sense. The egg of a new genre. I want to take this new direction and go further for Shenmue 2. I also want you to be able to carry your data over from the first game. The things you do in Shenmue, therefore, will affect the events in Shenmue 2. Of course you’ll be able to start from the sequel too. If you’re someone who has played this first chapter, though, the sequel will deepen your experience. That’s our plan.
If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!