Who was there: Sega designer Yu Suzuki was on hand to offer a look back at his storied career, from '80s arcade hits like Hang On, Space Harrier, and After Burner through the '90s jump to 3D with the Virtua games, as well as what he has been busy with lately. Accompanying Suzuki on his stroll down memory lane was Marble Madness creator and former Sega employee Mark Cerny.
What they talked about: Cerny introduced Suzuki to the crowd, noting that the designer will be receiving a Pioneer Award at tonight's GDC awards for his career body of work. He notes that this is the first time Suzuki has ever appeared at an event like this in the United States and then promptly jumps into the questions.
Cerny recapped Suzuki's early years at Sega, starting with his arrival in 1983 and his first consumer game, 1984's Champion Boxing. The title performed well, so Sega asked him to try his hand at a full-scale arcade game. That would lead to 1985's motorcycle racing game Hang On, which was described as "the first simulation game in the world" because of the plastic motorcycle chassis players would ride and use as a controller.
Cerny talked about a stretch of three years where he worked with Suzuki in the same building, and the impression that 1989's Virtua Racing made on him. Suzuki mentioned having to make 3D people for the game's pit work scene and explained that he used the same technology when starting on the original Virtua Fighter.
While the original Virtua Fighter looked crude, Cerny noted that the second game featured textures on characters. Suzuki noted that in the early '90s, military simulation developers were the only ones with any sort of texture-mapping technology. Unfortunately, since it was military technology, no vendor was willing to sell it to private companies. But after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, those companies were willing to part with the technology, paving the way for Virtua Fighter 2.
Cerny said there was a lot of pressure at Sega at the time to ship games. When the president would come in and see a beautiful picture on the screen, Suzuki said the president would insist on shipping the game immediately. As a result, Suzuki would have a button under the table he would use to downgrade the visuals whenever executives were entering the room. While the president eventually caught on, Suzuki said it helped him complete games like After Burner before they launched.
Suzuki also mentioned his Sega-owned external studio AM2. Suzuki said it was necessary to start up a separate studio because he would often miss the 8:30 a.m. work day start and have his salary docked as a result. The separate studio let him keep his own hours without hurting his pay or the morale of his fellow Sega employees who managed to make it in to work on time. Cerny said he heard the studio was named AM2 because 2 a.m. was the only time when all the developers would be there, which got a chuckle from Suzuki but no confirmation or denial.
Suzuki also talked about an incident with G-LOC R-360, an aerial combat simulation game with a pod that rotated 360 degrees. The team had been told not to work on the game alone, because the pod had a nasty habit of getting stuck in early versions of the game. One time a programmer didn't heed the warning and wound up trapped overnight in the game, hanging upside down. When the rest of the team arrived, they didn't immediately rescue him, waiting for everyone to get in and take a look at their distressed colleague before finally saving him.
Cerny asked Suzuki about any failures he has had, which prompted him to talk about a 2004 touch-screen fighting game called Psy-Phi that didn't make it to market. Suzuki talked about being influenced by Minority Report, saying he wanted to bring the image of Tom Cruise manipulating images floating in air to the arcade. One of the biggest problems with the game the developers couldn't get around was that players' fingers heated up too much from the friction of moving over the screen, and the game just became painful to play.
Cerny asked about the genesis of the Shenmue series, with Suzuki explaining that Sega needed a killer title to sell the Dreamcast. Suzuki said the game had originally been in development as Virtua Fighter RPG with Akira as the main character, though that was changed. On top of that, the game's purported $70 million budget was a lie, Suzuki said, explaining it was "only" $47 million. Cerny asked why it cost so much, and Suzuki explained that it went into commercialization and marketing. The team had so many people that it was no longer controllable, Suzuki said.
Cerny then got to the inevitable question about Shenmue 3. Suzuki said, "Of course I want to make it," but that doesn't mean he is able to make it. He joked that only 200 people might buy the game, and a large sponsor would be nice.
"Sega I think is going to let me make it," Suzuki said, adding, "I think it is just up to the budget."
When asked about Shenmue Online, Suzuki said he'd still like to do it someday, even though the first attempt at it was canceled.
Cerny asked if Suzuki ever had problems getting his titles greenlit at Sega. Suzuki said all he needed was the president of the company to say OK, so he'd create his plans to make sure it was something the president would approve. Virtua Fighter came about because the president at the time saw the success of Street Fighter and was more than willing to give the go-ahead to a competing fighter.
In the audience Q&A section of the talk, Suzuki was asked why the Sega Master System fell victim to the Nintendo Entertainment System. "Software must have been better for Nintendo, right," Suzuki said, noting that he was working on arcade games at the time.
Another audience member asked about Suzuki's Saturn game Digital Dance Mix. Suzuki said he had an idea that dance games were going to be hugely successful. He said he had an idea for a minigame where the notes would descend onscreen like modern rhythm games, and he lamented that he didn't pursue the idea further.
When asked about Virtua Fighter 5, a game he didn't have direct involvement in, Suzuki explained that the series has become a brand. He said it's a good thing that others can pick up the work, because he'd like to make something different.
The next audience member asked about social games like FarmVille. Suzuki said he thinks it's a new technology, and he looks forward to seeing what developers do with networking. There's a new market being created by those titles, and Suzuki said it will be the most interesting part of the industry in the next few years.
Cerny asked if Suzuki is interested in working on the 3DS and NGP. Suzuki said he has seen both platforms and is interested in them. The matter-of-fact response was brief enough to prompt Cerny to say, "This is the hardest interview I've ever done."
Suzuki talked about the shrinking arcade business, saying it's a tough time for the classic gaming halls. However, with so many options available to consumers, there's no need to go to an arcade to have fun. As a result, he thinks it will be difficult for arcades to bounce back to where they were in years past. However, they still bring people together in one location to play, and there's an opportunity to build on that.
The next question dealt with Space Harrier and what shaped the design of the game and its strange world. Suzuki said technological constraints necessitated the use of enemies like mushrooms, and he also said The Never-Ending Story and Space Cobra were direct influences on the game.
Quote: "I don't want to continue the same games and series. I always want to be making new games."--Suzuki, after being asked for his thoughts on Virtua Fighter 5.
Takeaway: Since the early '80s, Yu Suzuki has been a regular resident on the frontiers of the game industry. His arcade games innovated in gaming interfaces. The Virtua games helped usher in the era of 3D games. Shenmue was beyond ambitious in its scope (and budget), and even now Suzuki is looking to work on the next big thing with his small startup devoted to networked games.