At E3 2019 this year, I had the distinct honor of sitting down with Kazuki Hosokawa (producer for Judgment and Yakuza) from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios and asking him about the future of the series and how each game gets made. As well as getting some insight into the development process, I learned that Hosokawa gets his best ideas while sitting in the bathtub. While he wouldn’t confirm if he sipped on champagne while doing so, I now like to believe he lives exactly like the characters he creates.
To kick things off, I was curious which character from the series Hosokawa feels most represents himself. There are a tremendous amount of different personalities in Yakuza and it’s not hard to believe that some of them are based on the team creating these adventures. For Hosokawa, he feels that Yagami Takayuki from Judgment fits him the most.
“I feel like Yagami from Judgment…I feel very connected to him in terms of humanity and the struggles he has gone through,” Hosokawa said. “When looking at a character like Kiryu, he’s almost superhuman. There are times when you can’t really tell what is going on in his mind. He’s a hard character to really reflect yourself on or connect in that way. In terms of being a more human representation of me, I feel like Yagami is that.”
With Judgment soon to release and Shin Ryu Ga Gotoku still in development, I’ve been wondering where the series will go once those games come out. We haven’t seen much about whatever Shin will be, but there has to be some general idea of what will be next. “Ideally, what we’d like to do at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios is continue Yakuza as an ongoing thing and have Judgment, as well,” Hosokawa told me.
So if Judgment does well, which is already has in Japan, then we may end up seeing it and Yakuza alternate years in between releases. That may be exactly what Yakuza needs since the transition to the Dragon Engine with Yakuza 6 sort of feels like one step forward and two steps back. While not a bad game (I quite enjoyed my time with it), one can tell that the need to build a new engine demanded some features get cut to hit the designated release date. Kiwami 2 improved in nearly every fashion and it seems like Judgment will be better still.
“With regards to Shin Rya Go Gotoku,” he continued, “we’re still in the middle of development on that. We can’t divulge too much information, so there’s nothing that we can tell you at this time.” That’s to be expected, though, as actual footage of the game hasn’t even shown up yet. The protagonist of that title, Kasuga Ichiban, may have made his debut in the Japan-exclusive Ryu Ga Gotoku Online, but we don’t know how he’ll animate or feel like in Shin. The title is likely to be something that won’t see a release until late 2019 in Japan or possibly even 2020.
So maybe I don’t know a whole lot about that title, but something that can give us insight into the process is how Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios comes up with the narrative for each game. While Hosokawa and Sega CEO Toshihiro Nagoshi (creator of the series) don’t handle specific scenes or bits of dialogue, the two come up with the overall thematic elements that give each story its own essence.
“What things make a good story?” Hosokawa asked. “I kind of draw from all the different movies I’ve watched or books I’ve read in the past and try to figure out what was really great about them. I want to bring those elements in, mix them together with something that is my own and write the story from there.” As for how he gets those ideas, Hosokawa explained that he comes up with his best ideas while out for a walk or taking a bath. When something comes to him, he frantically writes it down so that he won’t forget it.
That desire to get ideas out quickly is actually a part of how Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios works. While the US has been inundated with a tremendous amount of Yakuza in a short span of time, the games typically release on a yearly schedule in Japan. The occasional spin-off spaces out some main entries, but there isn’t a long wait between playing a new chapter in this storied saga. Yakuza has seven main entries, four spin-offs, and two PSP games with Judgment seemingly being the natural progression of what comes next.
“We’ve been working on the series for quite a long time,” Hosokawa said. “Organically, the development team likes to push themselves to tell their stories from a new perspective or to bring something fresh into the mix.” When an idea comes to them, they get to work on it and thrive under the schedule given to them. “That’s how we develop new ideas as we move on in the series.”
With how frequently new Yakuza games do come out, one would think that the developers may become a bit tired of working on the same franchise for so long. I was curious if the team ever considered branching off into different genres, either with Yakuza or a brand new series. “I personally have been involved in the development of a lot of different games prior to the Yakuza series,” Hosokawa told me, “so I feel like my experience with development is really well rounded. I’ve tried a lot and I’m happy to be working on Yakuza the way it is.”
It’s possible that the team hasn’t become burnt out because they are allowed the time to decompress after each game. “The team definitely has to switch off after the development of each game and kind of go about their own hobbies,” Hosokawa stressed. “Everyone deals with this in their own way. Some members travel overseas while others go mountain climbing. I, personally, like to go camping a lot or build miniature models.” It seems Sega isn’t putting unreasonable demands on its teams, allowing them to live their lives instead of slaving over a computer all the time. This, in turn, gives the team the energy to come back to Yakuza time and time again.
What may also keep them coming back is the city they’ve built. Kamurocho, a fictionalized take on Tokyo’s red let district, has been featured in every main entry and will the setting for Judgment. While most of the sequels have contained another city for players to explore, Kamurocho is the foundation that grounds these wacky martial arts fantasies. I wondered where the team would go if they had to leave it behind, to which Hosokawa brought up Yakuza 5. That particular entry is the largest in the series and features five different cities (one returning from Yakuza 2). While Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios is happy with where they are, any future games may take place overseas to really mix things up.
One of the ways that the team has tried to surprise fans is with the casting of celebrities in its games. Starting with Yakuza 6, each new entry has had a famous Japanese actor portray a character in some capacity. You may even be aware that Pierre Taki had to be removed from Judgment due to alleged drug usage, which brings up why actors are being cast instead of creating original characters.
As it turns out, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios has always wanted well-known faces to be attached to its projects. The biggest reason for not starting with them was budget conflicts, but sometimes scheduling was what made plans fall through. “Even though we have certain people in mind,” Hosokawa explains, “there are always scheduling and budget conflicts that we can’t get the exact person we’re looking for. We try to keep roles flexible so that we may consider other plans if anything falls through.”
Before bidding Hosokawa goodbye, I pondered about a return of Binary Domain. An overlooked shooter from last-generation, Binary Domain was conceived by Nagoshi and worked on by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios, so it has some of the distinctive flair that permeates each Yakuza game. While Hosokawa wasn’t involved with the development of that game, he was happy to hear that fans were pleased with it.
“I’m personally not in a position to make the call with that series,” Hosokawa stated, “but we definitely love hearing fans reactions and love listening to what they want from the series going forward.” Truly, that seems to be what keeps this team going. Yakuza has always been a hit in Japan, but it recently grew from a cult following to a larger fanbase in the west. Seeing the fruits of their labor pay off in such a big way, it seems unlikely that Yakuza will ever be in a slump. That’s the best thing you can ask for.