As a long-running franchise sprawling across 14 titles, Yakuza has developed a tremendous foundation of narrative and lore, a story that spans multiple decades and a huge cast of characters.
That story isn’t just reflected in the people and organizations that drive it, however; by necessity, it also marks and changes the settings those stories take place in, particularly when the same cities and districts, and even individual locations, appear repeatedly in different eras and become synonymous with the Yakuza brand.
Remodeling the same towns and neighborhoods to appear faithful to the time period and the events of the story is a massive undertaking given the size and density of the settings, a steep challenge even for a well funded studio as experienced as Sega and a designer as accomplished as series producer Daisuke Sato.
Sato, who served as chief designer of the first Yakuza in 2005 and has been with the series ever since, says the first key is choosing which settings to feature and when to showcase them.
“It’s usually case by case,” Sato says, “but we generally pick cities that align with the game’s story and concept. For instance, when we developed Yakuza 5, we knew at the concept stage that we wanted to create a title that had five protagonists that would be set in five different cities, so we chose the five major cities of Japan.”
Given the narrative focus of the series, it’s no surprise that the story is at the center of most design decisions, even from the earliest moments of development. Establishing the story as high priority early on means allowing it to shape and mold the rest of the game to its needs; it has the dual effect of creating unity between design and art elements, as they’re in service to the same goals, and ensuring that the story isn’t compromised by having to make major sacrifices for the sake of other components.
For Yakuza, this philosophy means the settings mainly serve the story, rather than the reverse.
“Looking back at the series, we tend to choose cities that fit the narrative. For Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, it was part of the plotline to have Haruka leave Okinawa to go live in a quiet town in hopes of escaping from public scrutiny. In this case, we chose a location that hadn’t been used in the series yet, but also managed to fit well with that idea and the other various criteria in mind.”
This isn’t to say that the story is immutable or concrete once it’s been outlined, of course. And there are certain elements of a setting, in a game with a history as deep as Yakuza’s, that are notable and significant enough to move and rearrange characters and narrative around themselves. Respecting the locations as characters themselves, with their own identities and agency, is an essential part of how Sato and his team approach design.
“While we do create the story beats first, some of the more granular elements are designed concurrently,” he told me. “We position the key destinations based on the city’s locations and the paths that you need to take to move the plot forward, and then plot out the various events that trigger in between, but we often adjust the story a bit to accommodate the series locations that we can’t just move around, like Serena, Stardust, or the Millennium Tower.”
Preserving the character of those iconic locations is always balanced against the need to make a new game feel fresh and more than a rehash of its forebearer. This can be difficult, particularly if you’re not able to lean into a new hardware generation’s increased power.
“It’s always a challenge when the sequel launches on the same platform as the preceding game. When we’ve jumped from the different platforms (PS2 to PS3 to PS4), there’s always a visible upgrade in the quality of graphics and that alone can make it feel pretty fresh. We try to reflect any major changes in the real-life cities and incorporate more tie-up stores that actually do exist into Kamurocho. Sometimes, we add new paths, such as underground malls or rooftops, and then incorporate them into the gameplay. Other times, we just expand the overall playable area.”
Modeling a setting on a real location is a boon, of course, and allows the team at Sega to mimic the way a city evolves in our world, a handy shortcut for developers looking to bring verisimilitude to the places in their games without creating every element from scratch. But adding new locations as necessitated by that story-first focus brings its own set of challenges. Foremost, Sato tries to ensure any new setting doesn’t feel like an echo of place we’ve already visited, even when assets are reused or repurposed, or it starts to feel like recycling.
“In the process of choosing the setting, we make sure that they’re all distinct from past games. We want players to feel like the city has come to life, so our staff goes location hunting on site, and we recreate the city while trying to capture the unique identity and features that give it that life-like quality.”
As important, the team work to ensure that new locations are tied to new gameplay in some way, that there are features and activities available there (as well as the major story nodes attached to each location) that aren’t carbon copies of those available elsewhere in the same title. In Sato’s words, “We’re very careful about making sure the gameplay doesn’t get boring,” and that they provide diverse activities in different areas. In Yakuza 6, for instance, the surprisingly deep baseball simulation is only available in Onimichi, as is the spearfishing minigame at the docks. It gives the city a sporting feel to contrast Kamurocho’s metropolitan flavor, and emphasizes how much in this medium gameplay actually defines the feel and character of a place.