Sega's Yakuza series has been around for more than a decade, garnering both critical and commercial success in Japan since the release of its first entry in 2005. While the series consistently sold well in its native country thanks in part to its appeal to mature audiences and its portrayal of Japanese culture, its sales never managed to meet the same numbers in the West.
For a while, it seemed unlikely that western audiences would receive any more mainline Yakuza games after the series' fourth entry and zombie apocalypse spin-off, but in spite of poor sales, Yakuza accrued a devoted western fanbase. And it was their commitment that eventually inspired Sony's Third Party Productions group in 2014 to collaborate with Sega to bring over the series' fifth entry, which originally released in Japan in 2012. The strong reaction spurred Sega to bring over subsequent mainline entries to the West. With the release of the sixth core entry and a remake of the original game coming up, it seems the franchise is at its most stable and popular among western gamers in its 12-year history.
At the head of the Yakuza series is its creator, Toshihiro Nagoshi, a longtime Sega producer and designer notable for his work on classic games like Virtua Racing, Daytona USA, and Super Monkey Ball. His resilience during the series' early days and his leadership across the development of every subsequent entry played a large part in establishing Yakuza as one of Sega's flagship franchises, which is a major surprise given the company's previous focus on games aimed at younger audiences.
We recently caught up with Nagoshi at E3 to discuss Yakuza 6, the future of the series, and his thoughts on the recent resurgence of Japanese games in the West.
GameSpot: What are some of the new ways Yakuza 6 evolves the mechanics and storytelling from past games?
Toshihiro Nagoshi: First of all, the main thing is Yakuza 6 is built from the ground up with an entirely new engine. We've taken the storytelling, battles, mini-games, and all the series' core underpinnings from previous games and have made the entire experience seamless. On top of that, there's a lot of stuff that's occurring in real-time, so there's more of a rhythm to everything happening in the world, so there are often surprise encounters or small details around every corner that you might not expect to see or run into.
Yakuza 6 is set to be the final chapter of Kazuma Kiryu's saga. What fueled the creative decision to do this?
Back during Yakuza 4's development, we started to think, "How are we going to bring Kazuma Kiryu's story to a close?" Since the games are made to have all the characters age with each consecutive entry, we had to consider when to put an end cap on each character's story. Yakuza's story doesn't contain characters with superpowers who can use magic; this isn't fantasy. The game tells stories with real people and real drama. This has always been a major underpinning of the series, so we always knew that, at some point, Kiryu's story had to come to a close.
Similar to the way the 007 series hires new leads to keep the franchise going, we intend to have different protagonists appear in the Yakuza games in order to keep the series alive. When Sean Connery passed on the James Bond torch, a lot of people complained, but eventually people grew accustomed to the new actors. Each actor put their own flair to the 007 character, so in the same way, we believe that the different protagonists we'll end up using will ultimately be able to carry the torch for Kiryu.
Yakuza continues to have an incredibly devoted fan base in the West. Why do you think the series resonates so much with western audiences?
Yakuza's asian setting makes it different than the typical places gamers get to explore. And in that same way, the human drama surrounding the series heavily differs from the more Hollywood-esque storytelling you see in western games. People recognize [the Yakuza games] as different, so I think people are attracted to them because it's new and fresh.
Would you equate that interest to the way someone enjoys watching a foreign film?
Yeah, I'd say that's a possible equivalent--maybe like a Japanese person watching a Korean film or an American watching a Swedish film. But the one difference I see in Yakuza is, for example, Korean films often end on very dark or sad notes. I don't really enjoy these sorts of endings, and it's one of the reasons why Yakuza ends on more uplifting notes, which is more of a quality you see in Hollywood-style film narrative.
Japanese games have been making a comeback these days with western audiences, with quality games like Resident Evil 7, Nier: Automata, Persona 5, and of course, Yakuza 0. Why do you think Japanese games have finally returned to the limelight in the West? What would you attribute this phenomenon to on your side as a Japanese developer?
I don't really have a strong opinion about this nor do I know the true answer myself, but when I'm here at E3 and see games like Call of Duty: WWII or God of War, I can't help but notice each game's incredible standard of quality and how they're likely set to make a lot of money. That said, it's not always about the sales--of course, the Yakuza series does sell a lot in Japan--but I believe there's starting to be people here in the West who are looking for games they've never played before or have never touched. I think these people are starting to look at games, like Persona 5 and Yakuza 0, to discover something completely new.
One of the things that fans love about the series is its juxtaposition between its relatively serious main story and the absurd comedy of its sub-stories and side-activities. Why do you feel humor is such a necessary element to the Yakuza series? Is it tough balancing these tones to work together, given how they're essentially polar opposites?
Having humor alongside more serious subject matter is absolutely necessary because when you have too much of one over the other, people often grow tired of it. There's no variety. That's always a fear for us, so we always add a little humor on the side to mix things up.
Another aspect to our reasoning for adding humor into Yakuza is that in the real world, there's a lot of serious issues and unfortunate events, but if you sit down and pull at the strings long enough, you'll notice at its core, there's always something really stupid and hilarious about it. That realization that humor is at the core of everything is what makes up the seriousness and over-the-top comical moments you see in Yakuza games.
You've been involved with the Yakuza series since the beginning. Do you think there will ever come a day where you might move on from Yakuza? Or is the series too close to your heart for that to ever happen?
It's difficult to discuss things too far in the future for me, but as far as I'm concerned, I don't feel like everything is finished for Yakuza. Of course, Yakuza 6 is the end of Kiryu's story, but that doesn't mean the series is done or that we don't have any more ideas for it, so stay tuned.
Kiryu is a super-cool and masculine guy, but since he's a well-established character with a specific personality, there are things that he would and wouldn't do. That's why I believe having a new character with different caps and limitations opens the doors for all sorts of different kinds of narrative explorations. I want to leave the door open for possibility for the Yakuza series.
Can we expect a Yakuza Kiwami-like remake for Yakuza 2 someday? Or better yet, could we maybe expect Yakuza 2-5 on PS4 or PC?
Unfortunately, I can't really comment on that at this time, but I do understand and am aware that there are a lot of people asking about that.