With crime drama, mini-games like playable pachinko machines from Sammy, and hostess side stories, the Yakuza games are large projects. Sega USA was able to retain almost all of the content from the Japanese version too. How did Sega do it? That was one of the topics Yas Noguchi, Senior Producer, and I discussed when I visited Sega to check out Yakuza 4.
The Yakuza games have huge worlds to explore and a ton of text. On average, how much time do you have between the day Sega decides to bring one of these games from Japan to the Western launch date?
Yas Noguchi, Senior Producer: The project got started… from the actual hardcore work from March of last year. In terms of the actual development we went gold in the middle of January. Nine months, more or less, or something along those lines.
How does Yakuza 4 and its size compare to other Sega titles that you worked on?
Essentially, we do a pre-production. We figure out how many files there are, how big the scope of the game is, [and] we look at the game design. Based on that, we determine how many translators are necessary on the project. I think, all told, the core translation on the project was done with four translators and two editors for the initial pass. Later on, we also had two proofreaders and two more editors after that proofreading pass to touch up the language.
It is a large undertaking and with any project you have a plan. You’ve got to figure out what your problem space in terms of the amount of translation. Initially, when we do the pre-production, the team would tell us there are approximately a million characters. That’s what they actually told us when we were doing the initial estimates. Actually, there were more than a million characters, there were 1.1 million Japanese characters something like that. We have formulas to figure out how long it might take to do something on that scale. Roughly, two Japanese characters equals one English word. That’s one of the formulas we use. Based on that, it’s about a half-a-million English words. Based on that, we have to figure out what kind of resources we need.
Compared to Yakuza 3, did you need more resources?
In terms of resources, it was basically about the same level. But, the duration was a little bit longer getting the translation stuff done. Including the hostess system in Yakuza 4 that increased the amount of text about 30%. Including the hostess girls in the game is not a trivial task, it is quite a big part of the game.
And if you had to do Answer x Answer [an arcade quiz game from Sega which is not part of Yakuza 4]?
Yeah, I don’t think the game would have been out this year. I think one of the things Aaron [Sega USA community manager] has mentioned on the forums and whatnot is the problem with getting Answer x Answer made is there is a lot of 2D art. It’s not just regular fonts. If it was just a matter of translating the text and if it was something we could switch with fonts it would have been a lot easier. Because of the design, a lot of the Japanese was embedded within textures, it would have essentially meant we would have to remake the entire game from scratch. From a schedule and resource perspective as well, we didn’t have enough time and resources to make that mini-game happen.
I think there’s enough in Yakuza 4 to keep players busy that it’s a fair trade.
For sure. The thing about it is there is nothing related to the critical path of the game in Answer x Answer. I mean its a great feature to have. It kind of gives you a slice of playing the game in an arcade in Japan. It fills up the experience that way, but does it effect the storylines of Tanimura or Kiryu? It doesn’t.
Exploring Japan is key part of the Yakuza experience and I think that’s an element readers on Siliconera appreciate. But, for a broader audience, how would you explain the Yakuza series?
I think the core of all the Yakuza games to date are the characters and story. That’s the heart and soul of it. If anyone enjoys an awesome, character driven story, that’s really deep – I mean the characters have their own motivations, backgrounds, and whatnot. If they enjoy that kind of deep storytelling Yakuza is the game for them.
Let’s talk about the characters. Which one out of the three newcomers is your favorite?
I would say Akiyama or Shin Akiyama. I kind of identify with him a little bit.
Are you a loan shark?
[Laughs.] No, I’m not a loan shark. Well, at least not today or not this minute since I’m gainfully employed by Sega. He has a sort of slacker/underdog, he projects the image of someone who may not be sharp, but in reality the man is full of secrets and surprises. I like that aspect. He is a multilayered character. Also, his fighting system for combat is pretty good too.
What tips would you give to players using him?
His attacks are somewhat similar to taekwondo. He uses a lot of kicks for his combo moves. Making sure to position the character relative to the enemies so you can always have a strategic advantage, so your feet always have to be in attack position. As long as you are capable of having that tactical advantage he’s a very powerful character.
Sega has brought many Yakuza games to the West, but at this point do you and other staff at Sega USA have input on the direction of the series?
In terms the future installments of the franchise, I have a direct line with the series producer Kikuchi-san who works for Nagoshi-san who is the big, huge head of the development group and executive director of the franchise. On Yakuza 4, I worked directly with the original director of the project Jun Orihara. I would call him up and talk with him and drink with him in Japan when I was there. We would hang out and talk about stuff, talk about the types of games Western gamers want. In that way, I have a way to communicate and give input.
What kind of discussions have you guys had?
I can’t really go into details. [laughs]. Well, for example I love Fallout and a lot of Western gamers love Fallout. He’ll ask me "hey, Noguchi-san what games have you been playing?" I tell him, I finished Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2, I’ve been playing Fallout: New Vegas and I tell him these are the cool games, the gameplay a lot of Western gamers like. That’s how I fill him in and we discuss gameplay systems. I tell him these are the sort of things Western gamers want.
If you got a chance to close the series will Kiryu ever have a peaceful life away from the Yakuza?
I don’t think so. Not to spoil the story in Yakuza 4, but I think some people, and I’m just generalizing, are born into life to help other people realize their lives or dreams. I think in terms of roles Kazuma Kiryu is that kind of person. As long as he is able bodied and breathing he will be one of the people called upon to make things right.
Since the series have evolved from one character to four characters and spin-off characters. I wonder if Sega would switch the focus and explore other characters more.
I think that’s a valid way of thinking. That’s the awesome thing about what you were asking before, what would people who weren’t enamored with Japanese culture what does Yakuza offer, Yakuza offers very strong characters. All of the characters have deep backgrounds and I think you’re absolutely right. Any of these characters from Yakuza 4 could carry a new game.
Going back to the spin-offs will Sega bring Kenzan or…
In terms of the older games, I can really speak to that at the moment. Because currently from the Yakuza franchise we have Black Panther, Kenzan, and now we have Of the End. Which all intents and purposes is a working title for the West, we don’t know what it’s going to be called. I think the possibility is there. We haven’t closed the door on any of those titles. We’re always looking at what might be the next title that will be appropriate for the Western market.
That’s interesting because I almost feel like [Yakuza:] Of the End is almost geared for the Western market it has zombies…
Guns, explosions, and stuff like that. Stuff I really enjoy doing. [Laughs]
Did you help design or offer suggestions for Of the End?
I rejoined Sega in July of last year so I didn’t have a lot of input in the current stuff coming to the market like Of the End. Maybe some of the thinking or strategy for Yakuza: Of the End is taking the franchise in a new direction to capture or get the attention of other types of fans who may not have even considered Yakuza before. For us it was an intentional strategy to increase our market and appeal to different kinds of gamers out there.
OK, so imagine you now have free reign to experiment with anything. I mean Yakuza has zombies. What kind of setting would you personally want to explore?
I think because of what the Yakuza series has been it would be something contemporary and it would involve something that happened in the real world. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Yakuza 3 had something to do with land development in Okinawa, which was a big news topic in Japan. The Yakuza series incorporates real world events that happen in Tokyo or Japan at the moment.
One of the things Yakuza 4 touches on is illegal or immigrant workers. There are sub stories and side quests that involve them. So, it always incorporates things that happen in the real world.
Me, personally? If I were looking at potential direction for Yakuza it would be in the contemporary world and might have something to do with something that happens in the real world. The reason for that is I think you can make some really compelling stories and create real human drama by rooting stuff in the real world. There is plenty of awesome storytelling that can be done.
For example, "The Social Network", you can take a film like that that deals with real life events. In the case of "The Social Network" it’s the development of Facebook. Taking people like that as actors for a drama and making a compelling story can be applied to other sorts of settings. I’m not saying the next Yakuza is going to be about Facebook or anything like that.
I’m going to make that the headline. [laughs]
[laughs] Don’t quote me on that! As long as there is a compelling story and core gameplay mechanic that drives the story it would be something awesome to bring to Yakuza.