As of June 2020, SEGA will celebrate its 60th anniversary. How did that classic SEGA game start its life? How did that distinctive SEGA-quality, that many people hold so dearly, come to be? We asked game creators who are currently still at SEGA about these games, about their own creativity, and about what SEGA means to them. In this first installment, we’ve interviewed Mr. Toshihiro Nagoshi, the creative genius behind such legendary properties as the Yakuza series, Daytona USA, and the Monkey Ball series.
Toshihiro Nagoshi was born on June 17th, 1965. After graduating from Tokyo Zokei University as a film major, he joined SEGA in 1980. The first game he oversaw as a producer, Daytona USA (1994), was a worldwide hit. He’s also been the creator behind such popular games as the Yakuza series, Super Monkey Ball series, Binary Domain, and Judgment. He was appointed representative director of Amusement Vision Co., Ltd. when the main SEGA development team was split up in the year 2000. He is currently working at SEGA as the CCO (Chief Creative Officer).
OTAQUEST: You joined SEGA in 1989, what can you tell us about the workplace environment at the time?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Thirty years ago SEGA was a very passionate company, driven by a desire to “take over the world using video games!”. Not only did they compete with other companies in the arcade, but they also showed a strong rivalry with Nintendo, who had just found success with the NES. I had initially hoped to be put in the arcade game department because I had some familiarity with them, but was placed in the simulation games department instead. However, at the time the simulation games SEGA was making were some of the best in the industry, so the simulation game department ended up with a lot of the brains of the company. Of course, even the fresh hires were all enthusiastic and had all passed with high marks. However, I was at a level with little knowledge of games and computers. It’s still a mystery why I was put in that department. (Laughs)
OTAQUEST: And yet five years later the first title you had produced, Daytona USA, went on to become a smash hit all over the world.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: For the first five years, the only thing on my mind was to work harder. Back then, you could work overtime as long as you wanted. Looking back on it now, there were definitely some pros and cons. However, for people like me who want to spend all their time doing creative things, I think it was time well spent. There I learned how games are made by working on various titles, and when I had the chance to make one myself, I lost myself in making Daytona USA.
OTAQUEST: Did you notice any big changes within yourself after making such a monumental success?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: I was really happy to be able to make such a big hit, but the expectation of making another game in the same genre with the same scope put a lot of stress on me. Although I wanted to try my hand at something new, the people around me were left with this impression of “Nagoshi’s that guy that’s good at making driving games, right?”. Over time that turned into this really negative pressure. The main reason I decided to switch to games on home consoles was to get out of that suffocating environment.
OTAQUEST: Being overwhelmed made you feel like you wanted to do something else?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Seeing as I was still a young creator, I felt that line of thinking was obvious. SEGA at the time was full of people who would say “If you want to make this genre, talk to this person”. Those people would then continue to hone their skills in making games they were already good at making, so SEGA was full of top-notch creators. But for people who stubbornly held onto that way of creating, they eventually had nothing left. If you think about it that way, me following my heart and wanting to make the best game I can make regardless of genre, and having that lead me to making games for home consoles wasn’t a mistake, and actually I believe it’s the reason I’m in the position that I’m at now.
One thing I would like to stress for younger people is that while it’s good to challenge yourself and try new things, it’s not good to just try your hand at things randomly. If you’re working on something right now, the first thing you need to do is to produce results. And at the same time, you also need to feel like you’ve accomplished something. Then, move onto trying the next thing. I feel you should always remember that.
OTAQUEST: In the year 2000, SEGA made the major move of splitting up its main development team. What are your thoughts on this?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: I think that splitting the development team and leaving the management to the creators was a fairly risky choice for the management team at the time. If I was asked to make that choice now, I’d be too scared to do it (laughs). However, considering your subordinates as their superior, it is sometimes necessary to say “Try to manage this ridiculous task” instead of “stay away from management, it’s risky”. If you think about it that way, splitting up the main team was more about it being an opportunity to teach the young creators that making something isn’t just about satisfying your ego as a creator and that it has to have a business aspect to it as well. In other words, the company was aware of the risks and gave us that experience. In a lot of ways, you could say this was an act of love on SEGA’s part.
OTAQUEST: After the split and the release of the Dreamcast, SEGA withdrew from the console market. Did that come as a surprise to you as well?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Of course, I was shocked. However, my shock wasn’t simply just because we were losing business. It was because we had done the terrible thing of betraying the faith put in us by the people who went out and bought a Dreamcast expecting to be able to have many games released for it and to be able to enjoy it for a long time. If you quit making games, the console becomes nothing more than a plain old plastic square. I felt those responsibilities not only as a game creator but, due to the split, also as a part of management.
OTAQUEST: After that, you went to make games for Nintendo’s Gamecube. Why was that?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Withdrawing from the console market was like losing a war; that is, we were inferior to the other parties. When I thought about what we could do from here, I figured the fastest thing would be to go to the other party and humbly ask them if they could tell us where we had gone wrong. During my interactions with Nintendo, I was able to talk with many people, from young people in the field, all the way up to managers. I even got a chance to speak with Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was still alive at the time. Any time I asked questions, no matter who I would ask it to or what position they held in the company, I would always get the same responses. I was shocked, I had never encountered a company where everyone held the same stance and desires and worked together in unity. At SEGA it was guaranteed to get at least one differing answer (laughs). I was impressed by how everyone was on the same wavelength and thought “no wonder we lost to these people!”
OTAQUEST: On the contrary, were you able to see where SEGA’s strengths lay?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: At SEGA, the freedom and ability to take someone’s offhand idea and run with it to try and flesh it out was their biggest strength. At that time, I was convinced that it would be the most SEGA-like if we seriously pursued being a software-only company that continued to create very unique titles. That feeling is still here. After all, I think at its core the heart of SEGA is an indie company.
OTAQUEST: Yakuza was also born from that way of thinking. When the first game was made it was aimed purely for a Japanese audience. However, from the second installment onwards it’s also had a sizable following overseas.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Yakuza was made with the intention to sell well in Japan and build a strong audience here first, so to be honest, it being well-received overseas is just a result of that. The overseas market is very large, and within that, there’s the standard military games and sports games and horror games, and there are people who are tired of those games. I think their desire for something a little different is what led to it being so well received overseas. That isn’t to say we didn’t also have that as part of our plans. We put a lot of strength into our localization team and got people who could properly portray the underside of Japanese society, and I think that had a lot to do with how well it did.
OTAQUEST: Were there any big changes to how games were made at SEGA after the success of Yakuza?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: “Games that are made in Japan should first be able to sell well in Japan. Then we can think about expanding overseas.” This “local production for local consumption” way of thinking soon spread through the company and became the new normal. This is the same for the titles developed in Europe and the United States, and we maintain the thinking of “first, sell well in Europe and the United States. Then have it so people can enjoy it in Japan”.
OTAQUEST: Do you have any prospects for how long the Yakuza series will continue after this?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: From the business side of things, I think the series will continue, but at the same time, I personally think it’s probably useless to just aim to continue. Nowadays there are all sorts of devices and all sorts of media we can consume. However even among those the desire to see the Yakuza story as a TV drama, to be moved by the story, is strong. If we can answer those desires in an effective way, there will be even more opportunities to do new things.
OTAQUEST: Game fans will often use the term “SEGA-like game” while playing SEGA games. What do you think “SEGA-ness” is? What do you want to do to convey that quality from now on?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: This puts a lot of pressure on me, but I think the desire to try something new is “SEGA-like”. As I’ve grown older, I’ve felt that the products and services demanded by today’s users were a little different from the ones that I felt were right. But I think that little bit of a difference is very important, and from that gap is the potential to create another big game. So looking forward I’ll have the younger staff work on figuring out what fits in that gap, and veterans like myself will give them advice for creation and just general know-how. In that way, the biggest goal for me right now is to match the roles of people with long careers here with those fresh new faces, full of potential.
OTAQUEST: Are you not going to try new things yourself?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Of course, as an individual creator I absolutely have the desire to create a brand new title. And not just something that the general public will consider “fine”, but something that will split opinions, or something that a lot of people will oppose, but a few people will say “you absolutely have to make this”. Otherwise, I don’t think it makes sense to fight against the world.
OTAQUEST: To close things off, please give a message to all the SEGA fans across the world.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: I think that all the people who expect things out of SEGA are people with a pure heart, people who don’t want a boring monotony, and want to always be enjoying new things. I believe among them are a lot of people who believe SEGA is a good company, one that will admit when it’s lost, and apologize sincerely when it’s made a mistake. Using that trust as energy, we will continue to do our best to make products that live up to those expectations, and we look forward to your continued support of SEGA.