Exclusive: TeamYu’s founder discusses Shenmue III’s funding misconceptions, #SaveShenmueHD, and more
After Shenmue III was announced during this year’s E3, many people including myself could not believe that it was actually happening. Within 9 hours, Shenmue III had reached its funding goal, breaking all sorts of Guinness World records.
Despite all of the positivty and hype, Shenmue III’s Kickstarter was met with some controversy. Numerous gaming news sites accused the project of being a bit too secretive with its budget; Some believed that Sony was using the Kickstarter to gauge fans’ interest, while others questioned the extremely low funding goal.
I sat down with the founder of TeamYu and the #SaveShenmue campaign, James Hamill, to answer the burning questions that many fans still have about the Shenmue III project.
Marcin Gulik (SEGA Nerds): I wanted to thank you for taking the time to clarify some of the burning questions that many gamers still have about Shenmue III. Tell us a little bit about Team Yu and its involvement with Shenmue III.
James Hamill (of TeamYu) : I appreciate the opportunity, Marcin, and I’ll quickly recap for those of your readers who may not be familiar with Team Yu.
The project was started in January 2012, and two months later we began promoting a regular Shenmue Tweetathon every 3rd of the month, with the aim of uniting fans around the world to apply public pressure on Sega to greenlight the sequel that Yu Suzuki was still keen to make. Over time we expanded the scope to include other potential publishers and investors, calling on pretty much anybody out there to #SaveShenmue.
After three years of daily toil and the incredible support of many tireless fans, that slogan would be adopted by an official Shenmue III crowdfunding campaign that not only broke three Kickstarter records, but even broke Kickstarter itself.
Do you think that Team Yu’s consistent campaigning for Shenmue III helped the game become a reality?
The way that Shenmue III came together was a perfect storm, combining numerous co-dependent elements in a way that’s never been seen in this industry or any other. In fact the release of the Life is Strange finale last week along with Back to the Future Day got me wondering if Doc Brown and Max Caulfield were Shenmue fans, because nobody could have put all the pieces in place for Shenmue III on their first try. Just think about what was needed for the stars to align here:
After more than a decade of being unable to complete his magnum opus, Yu Suzuki had to remain motivated enough to inspire a new fan campaign, which would make both casual and hardcore supporters more co-ordinated and visible to the public. Ryan Payton, formerly of Kojima Productions and 343 Industries, then had to encourage Suzuki-san to consider the recently popular Kickstarter platform as a way to “mobilize” this more evident fanbase into crowdfunding Shenmue III, while convention organizer Cédric Biscay had to propose a partnership with Suzuki that would provide the majority of the additional funding the project would need to get off the ground. Meanwhile that broad network of loyal fans, actively poised and ready to spring onto social media when their number was called, needed only an invitation from a company like Sony to shoot this game to the top of their list for third party support, lending the Kickstarter campaign an immediate boost from being launched live on stage at E3.
Remove any one ingredient from that mix and Shenmue III might never have happened. How many attempts would the average time traveller need to keep adjusting those variables until they came together in just the right way, at just the right moment?
Of course if I had a DeLorean right now, I’d go back and do something about the rabid torrent of unresearched hatchet jobs that have been cropping up online since then, as the story’s remarkable enough without needing to twist people’s words and manufacture controversy. But I think the Doc must be busy on a new mission to save Alex Kidd.
The Shenmue IP is considered to be a AAA title and it is one of the most expensive games ever developed. Why did Yu Suzuki decide to fund a game like Shenmue III via Kickstarter?
The IP is owned by Sega, and there’s a lot of history behind their reluctance to fund a third game in the series. The budget that went into creating the first two games and establishing the methods and technology on which the rest of the series would be based was indeed unprecedented, and unfortunately the size of the Dreamcast’s userbase made it impossible to break even on that investment, despite it being one of the better selling titles on the system.
Shenmue II was then released six months after the console had already been discontinued by Sega, and in North America it was made exclusive to the original Xbox, with little to no marketing for a userbase who’d largely chosen their machine for games like Halo and were unable to play the first chapter in the saga if they wanted to. The predictably low sales for Shenmue II therefore convinced Sega, whose purse strings had shortened with the transition to being a software-only company, that funding Shenmue III was no longer a viable option.
So with Sega declining to finish what they’d started, it was up to Yu Suzuki himself to find other sources of funding. One of our goals with Team Yu was to assemble an army of fans that were ready and eager to take action when the word was sent out, and Ryan Payton used his experience of Kickstarter (for PS4, PC and mobile title République) to plant the idea in Suzuki’s mind that with so many around the world clearly chomping at the bit to help bring this game to life, crowdfunding was an ideal solution for Shenmue III. Other investors came forward, but to create a game of this kind the majority of development would need to be funded by the biggest resource within Ys Net’s reach: the fans. And with the help that these legions of responsive fans had procured from Sony, that all important clarion call was made even louder at E3.
Would it ever raise as much through crowdfunding as the original AAA budget? I’m sure nobody thought so for a second. But a lot of that budget in the ’90s was spent on costly R&D, an abandoned Saturn prototype, and the development of tools to do what nobody else was doing at that time. Now the team will be using Unreal Engine 4, an off-the-shelf engine chosen by Suzuki for its inherant suitability for the game – the story for which is largely written as well. Suzuki’s also been described by those around him as being specifically keen to work with the fans to deliver the game they want – by the fans, for the fans – making Kickstarter a great way to create that symbiotic relationship between creator and consumer.
Many people still believe that Sony could just pay for the entire project and are deliberately choosing Kickstarter to save some money, calling it a “scam”. Could you elaborate on Sony’s exact involvement in Shenmue III?
Sony could absolutely pay for Shenmue III, if the company wanted to. They could just buy Sega and pay for many other cherished games as well, but that’s not the role they’ve opted for. It would take a lot of internal work on their part to try and justify the perceived risk of taking on Shenmue III, a game that has carried the media spread stigma of “financial suicide” for the past decade, as one of their own. Instead they are content to recognize that this is Ys Net’s game, and Sony is contributing in specific ways in order to bring a much loved franchise onto their platform. Whilst Cédric Biscay’s Shibuya Productions remains the biggest financial partner, Sony is providing limited funding toward development, and assisting with marketing, production, and publishing for PlayStation 4. In return they get, or should get, tremendous PR for helping bring this impossible sequel into people’s hands, along with the hardware sales that any desirable console exclusive can attract.
But instead of that positive PR they’ve been subjected to some fairly incessant scandal mongering from clickbait journalists at all levels, abusing their position to feign concern over a perfectly ordinary and inoffensive business arrangement.
The purpose of Kickstarter is to “kickstart” a project that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, and the last fourteen years have proven this to be the case with Shenmue III. It’s not only common but almost expected that projects on Kickstarter will receive additional, independently obtained funding to cover parts of the budget not accounted for by the campaign. In Shenmue III’s case, the money being raised through crowdfunding (after Kickstarter/PayPal fees and reward costs) is all being funnelled by Ys Net into development, and the scope of that development is dependant on the amount raised by the public. Other areas of the game’s production are being funded with capital from private investors, and that is totally normal.
But normal is boring and doesn’t engage a website’s audience into clicking and sharing articles, so why let the truth get in the way of easy ad revenue?
The truly frustrating thing for everybody is that Shenmue III ought to be the turning of a page for this industry, with publishers reassessing their attitude towards their fans’ wishes. The demand for older franchises to return could finally be taken seriously after the runaway success of this sequel whose popularity was downplayed for so long. But that success is being dishonestly jeopardized by influential reporters for reasons as selfish as they are short sighted. Instead of a renaissance for classic games that are overdue a comeback, these writers would be content to maintain the status quo if it means they get a few more hits on their website this week. And that’s a disservice to their readers and to gamers everywhere, not just Shenmue fans.
Shenmue III’s Kickstarter easily hit $2 million in less than 24 hours. If Suzuki needed $10 million to create the Shenmue III he always wanted, why did he set the goal at $2 million?
When fans have been asking for Shenmue III over the years, their requests have most commonly focused on the story; seeing the story continue, knowing what happens next to these characters. It’s not even rare to have heard people say they’d settle for anime or manga, if a game wasn’t possible – a thought that doesn’t sit well with a legendary video game designer.
So bringing the story of Shenmue III to the fans in a playable form became the first priority for Suzuki, and together with the external funding he’d acquired, $2 million would have been enough to create that much. It may not have been the most interactive and detailed entry in the series, but it would have satisfied the most urgent need of the fans without resorting to a completely passive medium that required nothing of his experise.
Of course the more gameplay features, the better, and that’s what stretch goals are for. But not knowing how well the Kickstarter campaign would go, Suzuki couldn’t risk setting his sights on a minimum of $5 million or $10 million and falling short, as that would mean no money would be collected and no game could be made at all. By setting that $2 million minimum requirement he ensured that, no matter what happened or didn’t happen after that achievable milestone was met, he would be guaranteed the funds to make a playable Shenmue III of some kind.
As it turned out of course that conservative target was more than tripled by the amount raised, but I will always respect Suzuki’s commitment to protecting the game’s minimum required budget, and not gambling it in pursuit of ever shinier, ever more distant goals. He had too many people counting on him to produce this game to waste a golden opportunity on premature feature creep!
Some people seem to have an issue with the recent PayPal campaign for Shenmue III. Can you explain why Suzuki chose to continue funding through that medium?
Throughout the Kickstarter campaign, one of the most frequent requests being made by fans was for an option to participate via PayPal, either because they didn’t have a credit or debit card or because they wouldn’t have the money to spend until after the Kickstarter deadline.
The moment the deadline passed in July, Yu Suzuki announced on a live Twitch stream that a PayPal method was on its way. It took a little while getting here but in September the “Slacker Backer” campaign was launched, offering the chance to continue getting certain rewards through PayPal donations, with the remaining stretch goals still available.
Once again the less reliable sectors of the media saw an opportunity to pounce on a scandal that was never there. If they had done their research, they would have known that the PayPal campaign had been heavily requested by fans and promised by Suzuki back in July, so it was not a case of the greedy developer suddenly begging for more money.
When recently asked by an interviewer if he had all he needed to make the game he wanted, he readily admitted that more would help, and why wouldn’t he? He was already on record as hoping for $10 million to realize his ideal vision of Shenmue III, so to pretend that a smaller budget wouldn’t require compromises against that vision would be disingenuous. In the same reply he began offering very sensible examples of how those compromises would be made while adhering to the priorities held by fans, but typically the website and many of those reporting on the interview led with a coarse, out-of-context headline about Suzuki apparently demanding more cash.
Another recent interview included a line from Yu in which he dared to describe the returning character Shenhua, whose early placeholder character model had been criticized for not resembling her face in the final versions of the previous games, as looking “a lot cuter” now that her original designer is onboard. This outrageous remark, coupled with referring to a dangerous siren-like boss character as “an extremely beautiful and sexy, but cruel woman,” had the great and the good of video game journalism portraying Suzuki as some kind of sleazy smut peddler, fighting against the tide of equality in a noble industry that has no place for such sexist courting of the lowest common denominator.
That the Shenmue series has perhaps one of the most realistically varied cast of female characters of any game in the last sixteen years seemed not to matter, nor did the host of more interesting information to come out of the same interview. Not when there was a faint, ephemeral scent of muck to rake for a few extra clicks from the curious and gossip starved.
My point is that whenever Yu Suzuki opens his mouth, somebody with ad space to sell will find something bad to say about it, and then that contrived perspective gets spread around the ‘Net like a high tech game of broken telephone, or, one might cautiously say, Japanese whispers. But when you peel away the confused editorial and drill down to the source, the facts are reassuringly mundane at their worst and, more often, immensely encouraging at their best.
The addition of a PayPal funding stream is nothing but good news for those who missed out on the Kickstarter campaign, and it gives us all a second chance to see the next stretch goal realized – if purveyors of yellow journalism can lay off the libel and defamation for long enough.
Even if Shenmue III doesn’t hit the $10 million mark, do you believe that Shenmue III could still be a great game with its current budget?
Without a doubt. Yu Suzuki is one of the most prolific icons in video game history and his standards are notoriously high. He’s also one of the industry’s great problem solvers, accustomed to making the most from what he has.
For example, what did he do when there wasn’t the space on disc for the forests of Guilin or the countless apartments of Kowloon’s buildings? He simply developed the seeds that would produce trees and plants procedurally, and instead of storing the blueprint for every little room he stored only the logic that all such blueprints should follow, letting the variables of their location determine how the console would do the work from there.
And how did he overcome the fact that only he had knowledge and experience of martial arts moves when designing and animating the combat in Virtua Fighter? Why, he made his staff train and compete in company tournaments, with those who did well earning the right to work on more interesting tasks. For real, this man is a radical thinker, and will do more with a reduced budget than many could do with a blank check.
One of the first things he’s done has been getting the band back together, and recruiting new talent that he knows will make a positive difference to the game, such as the South Korean superfan behind the widely acclaimed HD remaster footage, NoconKid.
In fact everything we’ve seen and heard about the game so far points to the team knowing exactly what it will take to produce a Shenmue III that not only stands proudly alongside the earlier chapters and lives up to its name, but also continues to innovate and deliver new experiences to both longtime fans and newcomers alike.
Will it push the boundaries of graphical excellence and be mistaken for a franchise that’s reclaimed its position as the most expensive in gaming history? Probably not. But Shenmue is not an experience to be measured in frames per second or dots per inch. Shenmue tells its story with heart and soul, in a way never replicated despite all the technological advancements and inflated budgets that have come along since the series went on hiatus.
I am looking forward to stepping into a world that feels more real than any recent blockbuster because it has been made with real passion, a real connection with the player, and a real artist’s attention to detail that doesn’t need $10 million to enchant you like no other game ever could.
Suzuki has stated in multiple interviews that he would like to make a Shenmue 4. Do you think a Shenmue 4 will happen?
That will depend on the sales of Shenmue III, which in turn may be influenced by whether newcomers are able to play the first two games on modern platforms.
Tell us a little bit about the current #SaveShenmueHD campaign.
It’s the natural evolution of the #SaveShenmue campaign, now that Shenmue III is finally confirmed. To secure the future of the series we have to restore its history, its legacy, so that new players can fall in love with this epic saga from the beginning.
Every 3rd of the month, instead of tweeting the traditional hashtag, fans are now adding ‘HD’ on the end to demonstrate the demand for these games to be re-released on current platforms. As tempting as it may feel to relax and rest on our laurels, if we want to see Shenmue IV and a conclusion to the story, we have to make sure we’ve done all we can to maintain the pressure on Sega to make the whole series available.
Do you believe that SEGA will release a Shenmue HD collection before Shenmue III’s release?
As obvious a business decision as that seems, I think every Shenmue fan knows better than to give Sega the benefit of the doubt. For all we know for certain they could be working on it right now, but until they announce it we’d be foolishly complacent to assume it’s in their plans. One thing I hope everybody learned when rumors were circulating back in 2012 is that it’s far better to potentially err on the side of caution than to confidently leave them to it and then find they didn’t bother.
Considering that Shenmue was the first open-world game of its kind, do you feel that a re-release of Shenmue I and II can appeal to a new audience?
Not only did Shenmue popularize a lot of the design elements and gameplay structures that are commonplace today, but in some cases it still does them better than any game since. It’s not unusual to worry about how younger players will react to a sixteen year old game, but most examples I have seen of people recently discovering Shenmue for the first time have been overwhelmingly positive. With the rise in popular story based adventure games, not to mention open world environments with optional distractions, the world is actually more ready for Shenmue today that it might have been in 1999. As long as it’s marketed in the right way so that people don’t expect a game that’s just like Sleeping Dogs or even Yakuza, there’s no reason that Shenmue 1 & 2 HD can’t find a new audience amongst those who missed out on them originally.
How long do people have to donate to Shenmue III’s PayPal campaign before it ends?
The campaign runs until the end of December, which is going to sneak up a lot faster than you think. And when it’s over, it’s done. The backer rewards, the exclusive preorder editions, the feeling that you were part of something monumental with your fellow gamers – all gone for good. When they’re telling the story of Shenmue III’s unlikely revival years from now, you’ll want to be able to look back and say, “I did that.” So if you can’t already lay claim to it, then this is your last chance.