At GDC , legendary ex-SEGA game designer Yu Suzuki gave a highly anticipated speech detailing the development of his beloved commercial failure, Shenmue. At the time, it was the most expensive game ever created, and it launched on the SEGA Dreamcast. Many point to its performance as a main reason why SEGA's hardware business went under, and Suzuki moved on from the company.
To this day, mysteries surrounded the game's development. What happened during? What happened after? Where is it all going from here? How did SEGA find such awful voice actors, and does poor Ryo ever avenge his father? Suzuku bared it all during his speech, summarizing the legendary flop's place in his heart and history. Polygon attended and reported a story fit for Hollywood and directed by Martin Scorsese.
Shenmue began life as an action RPG spin-off of the Virtua Fighter series on the SEGA Saturn back in 1996, and making it was a "dream" project for Suzuki. SEGA granted him the idea of "borderless development" to make this game a reality, leading him to hire screenwriters, playwrights, film directors, and whoever he could get his hands on to make sure this project pushed every boundary known at the time.
After two hard years of development on the Saturn, the Dreamcast opened its doors to Suzuki in 1998 and granted him and his massive team even more opportunities to break the mold of console games. SEGA's doomed system appeared to have no limitations at the time. Five hours of movie scenes, four hours of combat, eight hours of exploration. Suzuki wanted this game to become the martial arts epic he envisioned: a 45 hour RPG and "game that could be played for a long time without getting tired of gameplay," as Suzuki put it.
His ambitions grew so large that Shenmue would have required 50-60 CD-ROMS to hold the entire thing, meaning his team had to develop specific compression techniques, and he even developed the game based on what specs he predicted the Dreamcast could operate at, not what he knew for certain.
NPCs, weather, night and day, open-world environments, forcing the hero Ryo to eat lunch, fully animated faces with full voice acting, Timex and Coca Cola in-game advertisements, and even the time for a Space Harrier and Super Hold-On ROM. Shenmue was development run amok with ambitions, personnel, and bugs, something Suzuki admitted in his speech.
"The biggest challenge we encountered was project management…By the end, we had 300 people [working] and no experience on such a large project. At the time there were no project management tools…so instead we made a job order sheet that was a list of action items in Excel. Because we kept testing, the items did not decrease. At one point we had 10,000 of them.
It's frightening to think we managed this project basically by pushing around pieces of paper."
Shenmue was finally released in 1999 after three years of development, and it certainly was a bigger and more real experience than anything the consoles had ever seen. It was also particularly impenetrable to a massive audience, and it bombed horribly because of it. Shenmue 2 was released under less stressful circumstances on the Xbox, and it experienced a similar fate.
Of the four chapters Suzuki had originally envisioned, only two managed to be released, leaving his epic unfinished. Naturally, the first question asked when he finished his talk was "When will Shenmue 3 be released?"
"I will make one if I have the right opportunity…" he replied.
It's a shame, but I doubt Shenmue will ever be completed during Suzuki's lifetime, or even my own for that matter. It was an experimental product of its time, and now we know better about taking huge risks with such a large budget. The current AAA development scene is way too scared to pull off anything of the sort, especially if it could scare away or offend customers.
Shenmue, like many of the Dreamcast's ambitions, was way too far ahead of its time to be accepted, and recapturing that creative atmosphere of the late 1990s is just impossible in this day and age. Ryo might have never gotten the chance to avenge his father, but at least he found his sailors.