Toshihiro Nagoshi is truly an influential figure in the video game world. As the man behind Daytona USA, Super Monkey Ball, and the Yakuza Series among others, the games he has worked on have gone on to be fan favorites worldwide. We’ve been fortunate to interview Mr. Nagoshi a few times now here on OTAQUEST, and with OTAQUEST CONNECT occurring, we feel that it was the perfect time to reunite him with EXILE SEKAI for a chat once again. In this first part of the transcript of their conversation during OTAQUEST CONNECT, they touch on a variety of topics between the 2 of them having to do with their history with video games, Mr. Nagoshi’s works, and more. The second part of this transcript will be coming soon, or you can gets the full video discussion on October 2nd during OTAQUEST CONNECT 1.11! In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this first part of their conversation.
OTAQUEST: Welcome to OTAQUEST CONNECT, an online convention experience hosted by OTAQUEST, bringing the best of Japanese pop culture to the web. Today, we’re joined by Mr. Nagoshi from SEGA, as well as SEKAI from the music groups EXILE and FANATICS. We’re excited to chat with these two creators. You guys have actually met before!
SEKAI: We have, many times!
OTAQUEST: It might be a little unusual, but SEKAI belongs to two separate vocal dance groups, EXILE and FANTASTICS, and is well-known for his incredible voice and dance skills–but he’s also very outspoken about his love for anime and gaming.
SEKAI: Oh, yeah, I love all of it.
OTAQUEST: Because of that, I heard that the two of you talk pretty often, and I’m looking forward to having a more relaxed chat with you guys about it. Thanks for being here today.
SEKAI: Thanks for having us.
OTAQUEST: First, I’d appreciate it if you could introduce yourself to our viewers and tell us a little of what you’re working on at the moment, Mr. Nagoshi.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Right now, I’m the Chief Creative Officer at SEGA. For most people, when you think of SEGA, you think ‘video games.’ Of course, we create home video games, arcade games and smartphone games, but we also make other products, like toys and attractions. Luckily, I still get to spend my days working on my own projects too, and I’m constantly coming up with new game ideas.
OTAQUEST: You’re the creator of the Yakuza series, one of the most popular game series in the world.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: I am. Back in the day I made other games too, but Yakuza has easily outsold all of those older titles, so for the past 10 years people have just been calling me ‘that guy who made Yakuza.’
OTAQUEST: SEKAI is a big fan of Yakuza, why don’t you introduce yourself too?
SEKAI: I’m a member of the dance and vocal groups EXILE and FANTASTICS, and I’m signed to LDH. I’m a performer, and dancing is my main job, but I do a ton of work outside of that. Lately, I’ve really been into games, manga and anime. I’m 29, and I’ve been dancing for 27 years, and I’ve been into video games and manga for just as long, you know, that otaku subculture. Since I’ve loved all of this stuff for over 20 years, I’m lucky to be involved in this kind of work. That’s why I’ve been able to get to know Mr. Nagoshi, too.
OTAQUEST: SEKAI, some people watching might be aware of this, but as a kid you played the role of Young Simba in the Shiki Theater Company’s production of The Lion King here in Japan. You’d go to the arcade before a show?
SEKAI: Oh, yeah. For sure. I’d be at the arcade before the show, then I’d immediately go on stage. I did that all the time.
OTAQUEST: So even now, games are still important to you.
SEKAI: Absolutely. I’m incredibly lucky to have been raised around such amazing dancers AND around people who loved video games. Even now I’m surrounded by some of the most influential game designers in the industry, so I’m getting to work on something I’ve been so passionate about since I was a little kid. That’s my life.
OTAQUEST: Mr. Nagoshi mentioned the Yakuza series just a moment ago, and he’s worked on plenty of other games, but before we get into that, this June SEGA celebrated its 60th anniversary, so congrats.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Thank you so much.
OTAQUEST: Since it’s the 60th anniversary, we thought it would be interesting to hear about what the atmosphere was like when you first joined the company.
Nagoshi: It’s been about 30 years since I started at SEGA, so I’ve been there for half of its history. Back then it was still a big company, but it was nothing like it is now. SEGA was famous for arcade games, and Nintendo games were made for home consoles. SEGA was doing it’s best to keep up with that. That was what was going on at the time, it was definitely an interesting place to work from the start.
OTAQUEST: Actually, we did a published OTAQUEST interview with you previously, so I’d love to go over your answers. You began by creating arcade games.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: That’s right.
OTAQUEST: That would have been around 1989.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: That was right when Out Run came out, and those full-body experience games were popular, but the question was: where do we go from here? 3DCG just wasn’t developed yet, and plenty of developers were still pumping out 2D games that looked great. At the time, I don’t think many people were thinking about how 3D would change the entire video game industry. I think cost was a big concern too. I went to an art school and studied design, but I didn’t have any experience with computers at all. But I needed a job, at the end of the day. I feel bad saying this when some of the people watching are probably really trying to get into the industry to make games, but I just needed work. I had really given my all to studying filmmaking, and I thought I’d work at SEGA until a good opportunity to work in film came along. That’s honestly how I went into it. Now I’ve been there 30 years. Life is strange sometimes.
OTAQUEST: Daytona USA was the first game you produced, right?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: That was the first. I was the producer, the director and the main designer all at once. I thought ‘If I really get in over my head, there are plenty of experienced people here, and someone will bail me out if I need it.’ But that was my first big chance to prove myself, and I wanted to see how far I could get on my own. I somehow managed to finish it, but I think a part of me was being naive. It was a driving game, right? There’s a pedal, an accelerator, a brake, and a steering wheel. As long as it’s fun to drive, I thought ‘that’s all that matters.’ But as I worked on it, I realized that making driving fun was much more difficult than it seemed initially. At that time, the gaming industry was starting to introduce more 3DCG, and I was being thrown into this super high-profile project. There was this huge pressure not to mess it up, and I really only realized how profound the work when all was said and done. I remember constantly wanting to cry. It was incredibly tough back then.
OTAQUEST: What kinds of games were you in charge of after Daytona USA?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: After Daytona, I was really into driving games, so I made another one, ‘Scud Race.’ Then again, another reason I kept doing those games was because I knew the company wanted to. Because Daytona did well, they wanted to ride that high–and I get that, but I started wondering how long it could last. That stressed me out. Also, Daytona was such a massive hit. I told myself and everyone else ‘oh, I can make something even better,’ but inside I thought ‘that’s impossible.’ I felt like I was lying, because how do you calculate how to surpass something when you don’t even know the formula to your first success? I remember being worried about how I was going to meet expectations, while also not sacrificing my own creativity.
SEKAI: All that anxiety was because Daytona USA had been so successful?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Yeah. Like how musicians worry about being a one-hit-wonder, or comedians wonder if they’ll only be remembered for one bit. It was that constant feeling that really made me want to change and made me want to become someone who would be remembered and appreciated. I wanted to do everything I could to resist becoming just a page in the history books. But the more I resisted, the more I heard ‘You should just do another driving game.’ It was just so frustrating. Looking back, I think I just wanted people to stop saying that. I had my pride.
SEKAI: You were really forward-thinking.
OTAQUEST: How did you jump from that all the way to the Yakuza series?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: I started getting more and more management work, and the company really started to grow, so I didn’t have time to work on my own projects for a while. I was helping other creators get their games ready for release. But while I was managing that, I really wanted to see my own ideas grow from an idea into being on the shelf. I personally felt like I was running out of time to make Monkey Ball, but I really had this need to create, and that was all I could focus on. It was challenging, because at the time, the game industry was really starting to focus on selling internationally. I didn’t understand why that was suddenly the most important thing. While everyone else was focused on going global, I was inspired to focus more on the Japanese market. That feeling really translated into the Yakuza series. I wasn’t only making something that would make the players happy, I was inspired to create something out of my anger. I was angry at what was going on in the industry, and angry with myself. I put so much of that energy into the game.
SEKAI: That’s something a musician would say.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: If I didn’t treat it like that, it would have been ‘Do this, and these people will be happy’ or ‘do this and you’ll make this much money,’ and that’s it. That didn’t excite me.
OTAQUEST: Between the release of Daytona USA and the first Yakuza game, we got the surprising release of the very unique Super Monkey Ball. The series seems to be more popular in America than Japan for some reason.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: It seems that way.
OTAQUEST: Lately it’s back in the spotlight, and I’d love to hear why you think it’s getting popular again.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Originally, I wanted to create something aimed at casual gamers, but that idea actually morphed into wanting to create something for kids. The thing is–and this happens outside of gaming too–creators might make something for one demographic, but once it’s out there in the world, the contents can take on a life of their own. I started seeing videos pop up online of people playing the game, and I’d think ‘wow, you solved the puzzle like that?’ I was shocked. It wasn’t what I first expected it to be, but I was glad that people were having so much fun, especially people overseas. I made the original concept and worked alongside a designer. We’d say, ‘let’s make a course like this’ or ‘we’ll add in this gimmick,’ and when I’d mention these bizarre puzzles, he’d look at me like I was insane. As things continued and we’d work on new versions, he got used to it. Even though it looks like it’s aimed at casual gamers, I tweaked the mechanisms within it enough that even hardcore gamers could enjoy it as well. I made it challenging. Over time, it’s become more and more aimed at hardcore gamers, I think. I honestly don’t think it’s for casual gamers anymore. If I make another one, I think we should keep the audience in mind. The package, at least, will be aimed at casual gamers. But it would be nice if hardcore gamers like it and bought it despite that. I want it to be well-designed, and something they can really respond well to. From one side, it will be something even children can enjoy, and from another side, it will be perfect for adult competitive gamers. I think that would be the best outcome.
OTAQUEST: A new Monkey Ball game might be coming out.
SEKAI: It sounded like it was a possibility.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Actually, the level designer for the game isn’t at SEGA anymore. He does freelance CG overseas. He’s incredibly smart, went to the University of Tokyo, and studied design. We’re still friends, and we still talk–just the other day, he said ‘I’d love to work on another Monkey Ball game’ in an email. So, it really is a possibility.
OTAQUEST: So, the chance isn’t zero. Now, we’re going to switch gears from cute monkeys to the Japanese mafia. How did that happen?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: It all began at the time when SEGA was stopping production on the Dreamcast and was looking into releasing their software on other platforms. Basically, we were able to work with Sony and Nintendo. This was a long time ago, and plenty of milestones in the industry have changed. Back then, big Japanese titles would sell decently in the west, but western studios were suddenly creating incredibly high-level games too. One year, the top 20 games only had a few Japanese entries, and SEGA noticed that. Rather than rushing to try to increase sales in Japan, we wanted to focus on selling worldwide. Our new motto was ‘let’s make things that sell,’ above all else. I don’t think that alone was a mistake, but if we’re thinking of making a game that sells, Kazuma Kiryu isn’t a great main character. We needed a ‘Tom’ or something. We shouldn’t make Japan the setting, it should be Los Angeles. And on top of that, we wanted to make something that adults could enjoy as well as teens, and we wanted girls to enjoy it too if we could. The best-selling genre at the time was action-adventure, so I wanted to go that route. So, we’ve got Tom in LA, right? I was like ‘that sounds ridiculous.’ All joking aside, everyone was focused on that kind of stereotype. Even creators at other companies were focused on popular genres, like military, sports, horror, and violence. If I didn’t keep those popular things in mind, the company wouldn’t support me. How does that look from the consumer’s point of view? I eventually decided to make content for a Japanese audience–I wanted to make content that the staff could identify with, and something that they’d love as a drama or a game. Before I focused on selling well overseas, I wanted to focus on making Japanese audiences happy. I wanted them to praise it, I wanted to hear that it was something they enjoyed. That’s something I couldn’t accomplish if I went forward with Tom in Los Angeles. So, I went back to square one. That’s how it all began. People would still ask me ‘what the hell are you thinking?’ I was constantly told that back then. People would say ‘shouldn’t you just do driving games?’ That honestly pissed me off, and I promised myself I’d never do one again.
SEKAI: I still remember the commercial leaving this huge impact on me when I first saw it. I still remember it so vividly. I thought ‘A game like this is coming out?’ You could tell that Kiryu Kazuma was the main character from the moment you saw him. The setting of the game was a place I’d personally love to go to, but never would. I could experience it virtually. I’m Japanese, but that’s a place I’d likely never be able to go, even though it’s not that far away.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: At the time, I had so many decisions to make, and I was mainly worried about how it would sell. It may have been selfish, but I wanted to market it as a Japanese S-class game. I’m sure some people knew where I was coming from, but some people would also likely be confused. They’d say ‘What is this? Why are you trying to sell this on such a massive scale?’ It would take money to get it to be what I wanted it to be, and I ended up spending so much. That was the final hurdle. I spent an incredible amount, and I knew that when I asked SEGA for more, they’d be pissed. But they allowed it, and that changed everything. Up until then, we’d made multiple big changes during development, and we’d have to ask for another 100 million yen, and then another, and another. At one point, I got the 100 million, and then decided to scratch everything and change it again two weeks later–so I asked for 200 million. They got pissed and told me to go to hell, I remember that clearly.
SEKAI: Holy cow.
Toshihiro Nagoshi: But even after all that, I told them that I wanted to spend a ton on advertising too. I mean, a ridiculous amount. But I knew that was the only way to make it a success. I really believed that. I just wanted it to stand out. It wasn’t even that ads would equal more sales–it would just keep the title in everyone’s mind. We were confident that we had done our best to make everything work, so we were going to take advantage of that chance to really sell it. With all seriousness, if I had failed back then, I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview right now. I would have had to take responsibility for that massive failure.
SEKAI: Was everyone on the Yakuza team ready to take on that challenge?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: Halfway. The others wondered if I was just being reckless, or if things would really be okay in the end. During the second half of creation, I doubt I could have reassured them if they had asked me things would turn out okay. Every day, I worked in the mindset of ‘I just have to get it done.’ The members of my team that stuck with me, they’re still close friends to this day. I’m incredibly thankful for them.
OTAQUEST: SEKAI, from your perspective, what about Yakuza really stood out?
SEKAI: The game takes place in Kabuki-cho, a place I’d never been. I grew up in Kanagawa Prefecture, and to me It seemed like such a dream town. My hometown, Hayama, was surrounded by the ocean and mountains and so much nature, and even though I was involved in dance, I lived somewhere that seemed so far away from those neon city lights. In Yakuza, the city is called Kamurocho, and I thought ‘wow, is this really what Kabukicho is like?’ Unless you go, you don’t really know what kind of a place it is. When you play Yakuza, you’re playing as Kazuma Kiryu, but you’re also experiencing it yourself. There are a ton of Japanese games like that now too, where you almost feel like you’re in a movie. But back then it was a new thing–while you’re playing, you’re passing by places we see every day, like beef bowl restaurants and office buildings. It was this new experience, but those touches made it feel so familiar. Mr. Kuroda’s voice acting for Kazuma was amazing too and left a huge impression on me. My grandma would actually watch me play at home, and she became a fan of Haruka. It was amazing. I’d had conversations about dance and music with her before, but that game really led to some amazing conversations with her. That was all thanks to Yakuza. ‘What do you think of Haruka-chan?’ Of course, now, people see me on YouTube and other video sites, and I chat about these things with other dancers and fans, but not my family. But the fact that I bonded over a game with someone so far removed from that world, my grandmother, was incredible. That stuck with me. The characters, the story, the script–that pulled my family and me into the Yakuza world. So many people around me got into it too. To me, it was my first experience feeling like I was in a movie. But all of that is thanks to the people who made it, like Mr. Nagoshi, the voice actors, the composers. I could feel how much passion they put into it. It was astonishing.
OTAQUEST: It feels very human.
SEKAI: When you listen to Kazuma talk and you see him beating people up, it’s not all about him being cool–you get this very human aspect of him, and that realness. You feel how tough it is to just get through daily life. That’s what you feel when you play Yakuza, and that’s what made me play it over and over.