The Yakuza series was not intended for mass-market popularity. At the time of its conception, the objective behind the series was very narrow: a Sony-exclusive action-adventure with a strong Japanese focus aimed at Japanese adult males. But as it turns out, the inner workings of Japan’s crime underworld is of interest to a lot of people, both in Japan and outside. Since its debut in 2005, the Yakuza series has been critically acclaimed worldwide for its innovative gameplay and strong sense of visual style, increasing its popularity in Japan and creating a growing fan base around the world.
However, Yakuza fans outside Japan have had to be patient. Traditionally, Yakuza games have been slow to come to the Western market, released one or even two years after their Japanese debuts. Yakuza Kenzan, the Yakuza spin-off title set in Edo-period Kyoto, has still not been released in the West despite its March 2008 release date in Japan. Those holding their breath for the Western release of Yakuza 3 were set at ease last week following the announcement that the game will finally be making its way West, arriving in North America, Europe, and Australia in March 2010.
While in Japan this month, we sat down with Sega producer and designer Toshihiro Nagoshi, whose work includes producing the Yakuza games and the Super Monkey Ball series. Nagoshi believes Yakuza’s popularity stems from the fact that the concept of the series was new at the time of its release.
“By focusing on Japan, adults and males, I created a condensed attraction,” Nagoshi said. “This turned out to be popular to a lot of people, not just its target market. I realized how much people liked the games and it grew from there.”
Yakuza 3’s biggest improvement over its predecessors, according to Nagoshi, is in the way the game looks. The development team worked to utilize the full technical capabilities of the PlayStation 3, creating stylish cutscenes, in-depth side missions, and realistic weather effects.
“I wanted to focus on making the city look as realistic as possible,” Nagoshi said.
Nagoshi says more Japanese developers need to focus on breaking the Western market and creating games that appeal both to Japanese and Western gamers. However, the way to do this is not by copying Western formulas in game development, but by coming up with new and innovative concepts that work.
“Japanese gamers and Western gamers don’t like the same things,” Nagoshi said. “But we need to concentrate on working with Western developers to come up with games that appeal to both markets. This is what I would like to do one day.”
Nagoshi also believes that while Japanese-developed games often don’t make a lasting impression in the Western market, 10 years ago things were different.
“I predicted this would happen. Japanese games used to be very popular in the West, and we need to return to that stage. Even the Japanese market is suffering and game sales have been going down. The only thing to do is to keep making interesting games,” Nagoshi said.
Without speculating on whether Yakuza Kenzan will ever get a Western release, Nagoshi said he was interested in creating another game in the future that would give gamers new experiences in the Yakuza setting.
“The biggest objective with Yakuza Kenzan was to make big changes to the Yakuza setting and give people a new experience when what they were expecting was Yakuza 3. I want to keep doing this," Nagoshi said.
While Nagoshi could not answer questions regarding the timing and release of Yakuza games in the West, we spoke to the managing director of Sega Australia, Darren Macbeth, who said the publisher needs to be comfortable enough that there is a strong market in the West before giving the go-ahead to local Japanese releases like the Yakuza series.
"Feedback from our fans online has suggested that there are more than a few gamers out there that are looking forward to a local Yakuza 3 release," Macbeth said. "We are listening to this feedback. However, releasing Japanese titles in the West is a tricky beast. In a lot of cases we have a very strong vocal group of fans, who demand the opportunity to play these games in their local markets and are very outspoken in their support. However, when the time comes, they are reluctant to stay committed and actually make the purchase. For this reason, although taking consumer feedback into consideration is important, we really need to analyse the market and competitive landscape to determine for ourselves if localization of Japanese games is indeed warranted."
Macbeth is positive that Yakuza 3 will do better than its predecessors in the West, given that the market for the games has grown. However, he says there are no plans to release Yakuza Kenzan in the West.
"There is nothing in the plan at this stage for Yakuza Kenzan. Right now we are focusing on the release of Yakuza 3. The feedback we get from this release will help us in making future decisions," Macbeth said.