Within the video game industry, there are few creators who have left as much of an impact as SEGA’s own Toshihiro Nagoshi. He’s the architect behind some of the last several decades most creative hits, including arcade-staple Daytona USA, Super Monkey Ball, Yakuza, and most recently, Judgment. We had the unique opportunity to sit down with the man himself, just days before the release of Judgment in Japan, to ask him a few questions about his extensive history with SEGA, as well as his life outside of the job.
Conducting the interview was Sekai of EXILE and FANTASTICS, a multi-talented performer who also doubles as a massive video game fanatic and overall otaku. Building on top of this, SEKAI has long been a fan of Toshihiro Nagoshi’s works. Going into the interview, we prepped Sekai with a handful of questions that he mixed in with his own, ultimately bringing us a unique blend of domestic and globalized questions that we hope delivers an in-depth look at the worlds view on Nagoshi.
With a focus on Toshihiro Nagoshi’s current projects including Yakuza Online and Judgment, as well as a look into Nagoshi’s views on approaching further success, the third part to our interview can be read below:
Sekai: In the upcoming Yakuza Online we’re set to be introduced to an all-new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Personally, I’ve been fawning over him because of his name. Seriously, what a name. But moreover, when you were working on Yakuza Online, what were some of your major influences?
Nagoshi: I actually get asked this question quite a lot, for a number of different titles. I like movies, but I don’t have any particular taste. I’ll watch Japanese, American, French, Korean, basically any form of movie. I’ll watch the movie as it is, but maybe it’s because I’m a professional, I’ll always think to myself “Isn’t the combination of both the scenery and dialogue in this shot great?!”. I’ll have a collage of a movie, then I’ll reconstruct it. For example, I have this setting and this character, but what if this were to happen behind the scenes… I get dramatic pretty quickly. But it’s my habit to think like this, I’ll be influenced by little things left and right.
Sekai: Because I play video games, when we’re making a music video or a tour video I’ll often pull inspiration from them. For example, when our vocal appears on a screen, I’ll say we should make it stand out more, and I’ll show them a scene from a video game as a reference. When you’re making a video game, you’ll pull inspiration from movies and videos then when we play your games, we’ll find inspiration for our own videos. It really comes full circle when we’re then putting the final product together.
Nagoshi: When you say it like that, it’s actually really supportive.
Sekai: Not at all.
Nagoshi: I can’t give too many details about Ichiban Kasuga away, but one thing I will say is that while he’s not completely opposite to Kazuma Kiryu his story did come from what we couldn’t express because of the limitations of Kiryu. That’s the kind of setting we’re working with. There’s a lot of fans who are in their 40’s and are so used to playing video games because they’ve had them since they were kids. Yakuza was targeted at people who liked Toei’s old yakuza films, but we took that to the next level. We wanted to show the life of organized crime in a new way to the generations so used to playing video games. I feel like interest in organized crime as a topic is waning amongst that older demographic, but I want to remind them “You’re still a man. You’ve gotta like raw enthusiasm, it’s in your DNA.” Again, this is going against the market trends, but that’s just the way we’ve always been. We’ve put a lot of character into Ichiban Kasuga, so please look forward to it.
Sekai: Both Ichiban Kasuga and Kazuma Kiryu are set to make an appearance side-by-side in Yakuza Online leading many fans to suspect the story will be a “passing of the baton” between the two. If this is the case, it’s likely that this will prove an important plotline before releasing “Shin Yakuza”. Because of this, is there any plans to bring Yakuza Online to the Western market?
Nagoshi: I can’t really share anything about the story, and in terms of relations between Kiryu and Kasuga, it’s too early to say. I can’t make a promise either, but I’d like to eventually see Yakuza Online make its way to the West.
Sekai: There’s a lot of people paying close attention to the game internationally, so I’m sure they’re looking forward to it. Moving on, what was the most difficult thing about popularizing the Yakuza series in the West?
Nagoshi: It was when we were working on the English release of both Yakuza 1 and 2 on PlayStation 2. We ended up putting quite a lot of budget into it, but I didn’t know English, so I could only listen to the marketing and promotion plans. We had a separate localization team at the time, and when we finally released the game, it didn’t sell at all. As I mentioned earlier though, the game was made for that male Japanese demographic, so I could understand why the West didn’t understand the game. It’s finally starting to see success in the West, and the biggest change was our approach to localization.
We have these messages to our words, but the delivery comes down to the translation. Translation isn’t just switching to a different language word-for-word, because otherwise meaning and tone are lost. That’s why recently we’ve been working to localize the literal Japanese words, as well as the dramatic undertone as well. We’ve also been working on expressing the culture behind it all too. Visibly the sales have been going up, so it has become clear the problem was likely the language barrier.
Sekai: So when Yakuza originally made its way out of Japan, it didn’t perform all that well. But now, several years later, Yakuza is one of the most praised titles within its respective genre. Do you think this was purely because of the localization, or is there something more to it?
Nagoshi: It definitely came down to the localization.
But just as an afterthought, there are also far too many AAA titles in the world, and I feel as though people are getting bored of them all. They still play them, but if you look at it like food, sometimes you want a full course meal, but other times you just want a hamburger. There’s a trend in the overseas markets where unique titles have the potential to be recognized. I know there’s a handful of unique titles other than Yakuza that have proven to sell well, so this might be another reason. I don’t want this to be short-lived either, so it’s my job to keep the excitement alive.
Sekai: When you look at both Yakuza and Judgment, both of these games contain a lot of uniquely Japanese elements. I’m sure that a lot of your Western fans really enjoy interacting with elements they aren’t familiar with. Is there any difference in the reactions of your Western fans in comparison to your Japanese fans towards your games?
Nagoshi: Usually I’ll go to other countries for work, talk to people at events, and see reactions on social media. I’ve never lived outside of Japan, so I can’t really say for sure, but surprisingly a lot of the comments are very close to what Japanese fans would say. It’s all worldwide, fans will usually share opinions on which parts are funny, as well as which parts are sad. I thought comedy would be the hardest part, but when I saw that everyone enjoyed it, I was definitely glad. If we work carefully and localize the games properly, I think we can continue to get these worldwide reactions.
I was so close to giving up, thinking that only Japanese people could understand my work. But now I think I can make something that includes everybody. But I want to reiterate that our main focus is creating a game for the Japanese fans who have been with us since the start. It’s after that when we’ll deliver something that we know fans around the globe can enjoy. If we stray away and try and change for others, we’ll lose sight of what made us who we are.
Sekai: I’m glad.
So from what you’ve said one of the main reasons that Yakuza got so popular in the Western market was due to the great localization from your in-house team. You’ve already talked about the localization of the game, but do you have anything you’d like to add?
Nagoshi: I think when we started the Yakuza series it was especially hard to localize. But there’s a trick now. With the significant upgrade in graphics quality from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3, and again from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4 there was a first phase and a second phase. Because it’s all computer-generated images and not a real person, the PS2 couldn’t show facial expressions at all. We had no choice back then but to rely on text, we had to use it in place of the facial expressions we couldn’t show. But with the technology we possess now, we can show all the facial expressions we want.
This means less localization work and more basic global appeal. I think we should continue to include plenty of facial expressions, but we also want the text to remain as it always has. Sometimes I’m worried about how simple words will be translated and how they’re delivered to the players. It’s a little off-topic, but I really do wish I studied English more. I was the type of person to think “I don’t need to know English, I’m Japanese!” . Now after 40 years I’ve realized that English really is necessary.
Sekai: SEGA’s been saying recently that they want to eliminate the international release gap for games by 2020. When releasing a game like Yakuza Kiwami on PlayStation 4, is there anything you take into consideration to accommodate this?
Nagoshi: It’s going to be very difficult to remove the release gap entirely, but we have a policy that we want to deliver games worldwide eventually. If there’s too large of a gap, fans won’t be able to keep up together. We just need to keep working hard on it. If we’re forced to sell too many remasters, players won’t have time to play all of them. So with that in mind, the release timing needs to be considered. In regards to this, I don’t think it should be our only priority. We should also focus on keeping prices down and give priority to ensuring more people are able to play our games. I think all of these things are important. I’ll stop myself there though if I say too much I’ll get yelled at by the company president.
As a creator though, I think we should focus on these things.
Sekai: In both Judgment and the Yakuza series, Kamurocho was modeled after Kabukicho in Shinjuku. Do you have any cities either inside or outside of Japan that you’d like to work with in the future?
Nagoshi: Someday I’d likely to work with a city in an outside country as well, but if Japanese people are making the game, it’s better to stick with what’s around us. It’s much easier to recreate an authentic city that way. Even though some data is made available, such as the length of the road lines and the height of the power lines, it’s all determined by the government. If that data isn’t made available, we just have to go there and measure everything ourselves. Then you’ve also got to worry about getting the blueprints for buildings.
If a Japanese person who lives in Japan tried to make Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be LA. If someone from Los Angeles was to take a look at it, I’m positive they’d be confused. But that same person wouldn’t know what they did wrong and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. It works both ways too, I’m sure that an overseas studio couldn’t make another Kamurocho by looking at Shinjuku. It’s our strength that we have such a sound understanding of the city. They can’t just slap together a city that glistens even with the grittiness of the streets. Each studio has their own strengths. With that being said, now that we’ve been building up the knowledge to create something new, I feel like maybe we could try to craft a different region and see just how many people say “Oh, did a Japanese studio make this?”
Acknowledging the numerous reasons for Yakuza’s success internationally, with localization playing such a major role, Toshihiro Nagoshi continues to work towards even more recognition for both Yakuza and Judgment overseas. Knowing the limits of his works, he continues to strive to create and allow every possible angle to be explored, shifting and creating entire narratives around him so we can continue to enjoy his works. In the fourth and final part of our interview, we hyper-focus in on the world of Judgment and analyze the differences between the protagonists of each game.
The fourth and final part of our interview is set to release in a week.
The second part of our interview series can be read here.