The Man Who Won't Leave Sega: Toshihiro Nagoshi

By Christian Nutt

Toshihiro Nagoshi began to stand out from the pack of developers at Sega about 10 years ago, at the launch of Nintendo's Gamecube's. He showed the press his launch title, Super Monkey Ball, which he grew into a franchise for the then newly-minted third-party developer.

After that, he launched the Yakuza franchise. While it's only been a cult hit in the West, it's Sega's most reliable performer on the console side in Japan, with its latest annual installment selling hundreds of thousands of copies every year since it launched in 2005.

Now Nagoshi is taking a new challenge. He's set Yakuza Studio, the internal team he heads at Sega, to develop a shooter targeted at Western audiences: Binary Domain. Due to launch on Valentine's Day for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it's a fusion of Eastern and Western gameplay tastes and talent, he says, designed to challenge his studio to produce something global -- despite the fierce competition from experienced Western shooter developers.

"I feel like if someone like myself doesn't try to take what I'm good at and bring it up with the competition, the gap between Japan and Western developers is just going to get worse. This is where video game culture really got started, after all, with Nintendo. I do feel like I'm fighting for my pride here, and I think we can claw our way upward," Nagoshi told Gamasutra.

What prompted you to create Binary Domain?

Toshihiro Nagoshi: I would say the main inspiration was to create a game that was squarely in the science-fiction domain. Our team has been working on games set in modern-day Japan for a while now, and through that, I think we've learned a lot about how tell a good story and work it into the gameplay experience. I think we all wanted to experiment with that knowledge and try something different.


Nagoshi appears on stage at Sega's TGS 2011 booth to promote the Yakuza series.

I'd agree; playing several of the Yakuza games, they do have a great sense of drama and good storytelling. Is that what you're attempting to bring over to the shooter genre?

TN: Certainly. I think the action and the visuals are there, but if you are into the drama that can be told in a medium like this, there's a lot to enjoy. In fact, all of the acting -- and all of the motion capture, as well -- is being done by American actors and directors.

At the same time though, the people who are taking that data and putting together the cameras, the visual and story package; they're all Japanese and working with a Japanese perspective. So it's an American-style drama done with a bit of a different perspective, and I think Yakuza fans in particular should take special note of that.

Is it the same development team, or did you assemble a different one?

TN: It's the same one.

You've launched a new Yakuza every year since the series launched. Is Binary Domain going to throw that off?

TN: Well, I don't think it'd be a lie to say that the series as we've been creating it from the PS2 era is coming to an end. It's the end of one era for the Yakuza series.

Since you concentrated on the PlayStation 3 recently -- this game is on the Xbox 360 as well, right? So did you have rework the technological pipeline, so to speak, for this game?

TN: No, I wouldn't go that far. And when I say that -- just speaking in terms of going between the PS3 and 360, though this sort of goes for the PC as well -- there's really no obstacles or anything to hinder that. Some of the middleware support you receive differs between the two, that's true, but really, it's the same, more or less.


One of the things that stands out to me in Yakuza is the memorable characters, like Kiryu and Majima. That's a hallmark of those games; will you bring a similar level of characterization to Binary Domain?

TN: Well, for this project, a lot of the focus in the drama was to make the game scenes as exciting as possible. It's less of a cutscene approach than what you saw in Yakuza, not that we aren't using what we know, of course...

I think one main difference is that in Yakuza, you have one really strong, overwhelming main character in Kiryu, but in this game, the theme's more about a team bonding together. So while you have a main character in Dan Marshall, I want to make sure the rest of the cast shines, too.

In that way, the characterization will be a bit different from the Yakuza series. I think the characterization in Yakuza was built to emphasize the drama, but in Binary Domain, it's there to rev up the game.

There's a lot of debate among developers over how important story is to gameplay. I'm guessing you think it's pretty important, but it sounds like you're making concessions to make things more seamless.

TN: Certainly, and I think the technology we have that's driving this game is serving to make that transition between game and story more seamless than ever. Personally, I think that drama and storytelling is an important part of a game. Your response to playing a game is twofold -- the stimulus to your senses, and the motivation you have to continue playing.

With something like Tetris, for example, it's fun to try and get a high score, but essentially you're doing the same thing over and over again, which doesn't provide you with a lot of long-term motivation. One obvious way to build motivation in games, on the other hand, is to put some kind of story in there. There are lots of different approaches to that, of course. I don't think drama is absolutely important, but it's a very useful tool.


Binary Domain

It's a question of balance, as well, between the different elements of the game that you feel will compel the player. It's about pacing.

TN: That's what I pay more attention to than anything else, really. But that balance isn't a thing that works across borders, I don't think. In the U.S. and Europe, it's more of a sensual experience, while story and motivation plays a much more vital role around Asia. So it's hard with any game to figure out how to work that balance. I'm proud of how it's turning out in Binary Domain, but I'm still a fan of dramatic elements. I don't think a shooter with a lot of drama necessarily won't sell to Western audiences, and that's something I wouldn't mind proving with this project.

Is this game primarily balanced or targeted for a Western audience?

TN: Well, I am a Japanese person, so certainly I'm concerned about whether Japanese people get into this or not. However, I also would like to see things that succeed in Japan also succeed in the West. My ultimate goals are worldwide, but I think there's a difference between something that's a hit worldwide and something that starts off big in Japan, then goes elsewhere. I like the idea of breaking out of Japan into the rest of the world -- maybe it's just an image in my mind, but that's how I'd like to go. That's part of why the game is set in Japan, after all.

You talked about technology developed to do the kind of story you wanted to create. Is that all stuff you've developed internally at Sega?

TN: It is stuff done within the company. The long answer to that is that, it's something where if we weren't releasing Yakuza on a yearly basis, I would have liked to do for that series. This is the result of having that time and really doing it right, figuring out how to handle loading the most effectively, and so forth.


When developing a shooter, a lot of teams have a long history of it, and advanced technology and institutional knowledge. Do you feel you're playing catch-up, to some extent?

TN: That's true, to be sure, and to be honest, I don't think we can all of a sudden beat all those developers at once with a single game. However, I feel like if someone like myself doesn't try to take what I'm good at and bring it up with the competition, the gap between Japan and Western developers is just going to get worse. This is where video game culture really got started, after all, with Nintendo. I do feel like I'm fighting for my pride here, and I think we can claw our way upward.

We've seen a big shake-up lately, with high-powered Japanese creators leaving companies, most significantly Inafune from Capcom. You're still at Sega, and it seems like you're satisfied there.

TN: Well, I don't know if I'd call myself all that high-powered [laughs]. It's hard to say whether the trend is a good thing and for everyone's best interests, but a creator needs to be someplace where he can shine the brightest, and that's not necessarily always going to happen by going it alone.

It's not that I'm satisfied at Sega so much as I really owe one to Sega -- they taught me how much fun making games can be. I doubt I would leave this company in 10 or even 20 years. Unless something really drastic happens, I'm not going to leave on my own volition.

One thing I've heard some Japanese creators say is that there's been a lack of fostering young talent in the industry; that younger generations of creators aren't fulfilling their potential because they lack the opportunity.

TN: I think the fix for that is pretty obvious, like with any industry. But the problem is that if something gets screwed up, there's hardly any room for mistakes any longer. Raising talent, I think, requires you to be more forgiving of mistakes, and that sort of goes against that, is all there is to it. I understand how the industry works, but that doesn't mean I think it's right.

It seems like the industry survives off such thin profit margins that experimentation in general is hard to do.

TN: I wouldn't say the margins are that terribly low, but I think things have changed very rapidly in the business and a lot of places are still trying to figure out the new reality.

What reality is that for you?

TN: There are several different ones to deal with. You have the Xbox, which is massive in the U.S. and a very small player in Japan. You have Sega, which I think has really recovered a lot of ground and credibility over the years -- especially across Asia -- but the genres in which we've prospered are not the sorts of things that hit it big elsewhere. There's a gap between what we've done and what we can do, and I think we can bridge that gap.

How much oversight do you personally have into Sega's strategy from the Japanese development side?

TN: In terms of console development... how to put it? I guess they take my opinions pretty seriously. [laughs] It's kind of embarrassing to tell my friends that, though. For our Japan strategy, at least, I get to speak my voice on our software lineup and so forth; the final green light, if you will, in where to put resources.

It'll be interesting to see what your final say results in, then.

TN: Absolutely! Something that sells more in America. [laughs] We'll try our best.

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