Watched Gamasutra’s newest classic video yesterday. It’s of Yu Suzuki’s 2000 GDC keynote. The video is of the president of Sega of America “interviewing” Mr. Suzuki, though he really just sets things up so Yu can show off his game. “What’s this I hear about 300 characters? What about the fighting system? What is Magic Weather?” To which Yu consistently replies, “I have a video that explains that…”
Not that it was a bad video – not at all, I’m glad I watched it. I just remember those young, heady times – Shenmue was going to change everything. Only it didn’t. And the reason it didn’t is because the game cost too much and took too long to make. While there were some automated systems in the game (such as automated lipsynching) and a fair amount of motion capture, the actual models, textures, and level geometry were all done by hand. And that took about five years. Suzuki himself mentioned that by the time the game was done, his team had grown to over 300 people, and a third of those were Sega employees who were presumably permanently employed. You can’t make a profitable game by paying a hundred people for five years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Shenmue had the same debilitating effect on Sega that Wing Commander 4 did on Origin Systems.
This is why Warren Spector recently called for the development of tools that could create randomized but realistic level geometry – a tough problem to solve, given how well the human eye picks out patterns and incorrect details. But if such a problem could be solved, games as rich and deep as Shenmue could be made in a much shorter time and with a much smaller team – meaning they could be profitable. Everyone would win – both developers and players.
The other interesting thing about the video was that when Yu Suzuki got back from his inspiration trip to China, the first thing he did – before any models or even sketches were made, before any script was written, before anything else – was to commission musical pieces for Shenmue, so that all the developers could listen to them for inspiration as they worked.
This really caught my attention because on the Spirited Away DVD (which you should go out and buy right now) the “making of” special mentions that Hayao Miyazaki listened to “Always With Me” over and over again during the making of the movie. This song had been created by a musician and lyricist team that had been inspired by Princess Mononoke, and they sent him the song hoping he could use it for one of his movies. He listened to it constantly for inspiration during the making of “Spirited Away” and it eventually became the theme of the movie.
Mike McShaffry once wrote an article for the IGDA called “There and Back Again” (which has since fallen off the web, or I’d link to it). In this article he compared game development to trying to roll a very large rock down a very steep hill to hit a very small target. So of course you want to aim well and push hard at the beginning, because you won’t have much of a chance to affect the rock’s course once it gets momentum. Perhaps having musical themes prepared beforehand could help keep the “rock” on course while it rolls – there’s no doubt that both the Shenmue themes and “Always With Me” are very specific in the images they conjur up.