It’s September 13Please see the following: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is just over 24 hours away from revealing its big plans for the future. It’ll be a night of celebrities, game announcements, and an infamous afterparty full of alcohol, confetti, and blaring music. It’ll take over Twitter, and leave more than a few people nursing headaches the following day.
Today, however, Masayoshi Yookoyama, the studio’s head, sits in a conference and talks about why he is so passionate about anime instead of worrying about his big night. Neon Genesis Evangelion.
“If you watch a VHS tape enough times, the [plastic tape] inside will start ripping, and then you won’t be able to watch it anymore,” he says. “But if you actually just take tape and tape it back up, it’ll work again. “I watched my Evangelion VHS tape and had to repair it three or four times.”
Yokoyama is flanked by six Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio heads (RGG) on his right and left, each of whom leads a separate department or discipline. I’m sitting opposite at a long conference table at RGG’s office in Tokyo, Japan. We’re all here to talk about the future but are admittedly side-tracked. We should be talking about the Yakuza series, especially now that it’s more popular globally than ever. We must also mention the fact that Yokoyama took the title of head studio in a very short time, after some highly publicized departures. This is what we’ll do. But first, Yokoyama would like to discuss his greatest influence.
“It’s this manga called Oishinbo,” he says, making the room laugh in surprise. “It’s a manga about food. It’s a food thing. The Ryu Ga Gotoku is, in essence, what I consider the most important. [Yakuza]The series can be described as OishinboThe Yakuza version. It was the one I remember reading most often as a youngster. I could read it repeatedly. Every week there’s basically a new, ‘This is how you make food.’ So, probably that, but Yakuza?”
There’s confidence in the way the RGG staff speaks. It could be mistaken for cockiness – and perhaps is. RGG, in their defense, has had the sales and games that support it in the past few years. While things might be improving, the team remains laser-focused upon its ongoing narrative crime series. There’s time to let conversations go off-topic because, as far as the seven leads are concerned, no matter what’s changed or what will change, it’s still business as usual. Even if it isn’t, really.
RGG was dissolved in October 2021. It’s kind of. It really depends who you ask.
Since its inception, Toshihiro Nagoshi – a then-30-year veteran of parent company Sega – had been the recognizable founder and head of RGG. Interviews outside Japan were frequent opportunities for him to speak out in favor of the series and studio. When people think about the Yakuza series, there’s a good chance they also think of Nagoshi. Despite his age, it didn’t hurt that he was also always ahead of the curve regarding fashion and trends. His appearance was like something from his video games.
But he left, as did several high-ranking members of RGG’s staff. Nagoshi, Yakuza Series producer Daisuke Sato (Judgment), and nearly a dozen Sega or RGG employees joined Nagoshi Studio. Funded by NetEase, Nagoshi Studio was formed. In their absence, Yokoyama, with the company since the beginning, and a longtime writer on the Yakuza series, stepped up, now officially serving as RGG studio director and executive producer.
A developer can be troubled by large and prominent departures. And in the case of RGG, Nagoshi’s departure came during the height of the Yakuza series’ global popularity – beginning with 2017’s hit Yakuza 0, and reaching a fever-pitch with 2020’s Yakuza: Like A Dragon. It was shocking to see the series’ most recognizable face leaving as soon as it really found its wider audience.
But as Yokoyama tells it, it wasn’t such a shock internally. He says that it took a long time and that RGG only had one face.
“We never actually really intended or thought that Nagoshi-san was the face of the company,” he admits. “We all thought that we were also coming out and speaking and being part of it as well.”
This is true to some degree – especially in Japan; himself, Yakuza series chief director Ryosuke Horii, and Yakuza series chief producer Hiroyuki Sakamoto have given tons of interviews and appeared at events over the years. But still, Nagoshi’s name and face is intrinsically tied to RGG’s tentpole series moreso than anyone else’s, and Sato had long been one of the creative forces behind the Yakuza games. All of the remaining members knew what Sato and Nagoshi’s departure would look like from outside. So, alongside announcing their departure, Yokoyama released a lengthy message about the studio’s future. And most importantly, RGG released slick photos of the seven department heads – again, looking pretty similar to the characters in their own games. You can see the infamous group photo in the header of this article and profile shots below.
“I’m really embarrassed about it,” Yokoyama says, laughing. “Initially, it took us a lot of courage to go with this. Because we’re not celebrities. We’re not people who, like, our job is to look really nice for the camera. So, it did take a lot of courage for us to do this.”
“I was very happy that they took a picture of me looking cool,” Horii contradicts.
The reason they released the image alongside negative news is to make people look forward to it. This was their hope that fans would see RGG as positive. They say the reaction has been much better than they expected. Anecdotally, I agree; I didn’t see many negative responses to the internal shake-up when it was announced. RGG’s bosses also seem to think so.
“Even the higher-ups at the company were like, ‘Hey, wow. That’s actually looking pretty good,’” Yokoyama says. “That’s why we took this picture – we wanted people to think that way.”
From what I know, there was no bad agreement. Nagoshi tweeted about how much he liked RGG’s announcementsEach week. However, it means that there are more opportunities for people to work in the studio. Horii regards this as a positive step.
“Obviously, Nagoshi-san and Sato-san leaving means that new people get to rise to the top, and we have new leaders emerging,” he says. “I think overall, it’s not that everything up until now was bad, and we want to change it. Basically, it just means it’s good to have new voices coming in. We’re not going to be making any major changes in terms of our [studio’s]Directions or values. We think it’s a good amount of change that new people are getting exposed.”
The studio is able to speak about one shift: the number of non-Japanese who work at RGG. According to Yokoyama’s account, RGG has employees who are from different parts of Asia. He wants to keep this tradition going and create a multicultural studio. He says he imagines a scenario where we’re sitting in this same room in the future, and there are heads of the studio that aren’t from Japan.
The working conditions of these new employees is supposedly much better than the one at the start of RGG. Yokoyama compares the company’s early schedule to those of night hosts; they’d come to work in the middle of the night and go home in the middle of the morning.
“Now, we’re all living very healthy, responsible [lives],” he says, laughing. “We come in at, like, 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m. […] We all got married; we had kids.”
The studio owners claim that they are trying to teach their workers the importance of work-life balance. As long as games are made.
“As leaders, we want people to maintain healthy lives,” Yokoyama says. “But all of our development team is relatively free to decide when they want to come in and when they want to leave. Despite our fast development process, everyone who works on our games has the ability to maintain their lifecycle. And if something doesn’t turn out well, we’ll go back to the drawing board and we’ll remake it and keep doing things over again. We think we’re craftsmen in that sense. Generally, because of that, we don’t want to make a rule, like, ‘You have to be at work from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We’re saying, ‘You can do what you want. Just get your job done.’”
We didn’t get to talk to any RGG employees beyond the leads of the studio to ask about their work schedules. But if what Yokoyama says is true, it’s a refreshing take from the head of a game developer – especially one as prolific as RGG, which often releases a game a year and is about to announce three in one day.
This is the final word.
This is the final word.
Horii’s life’s work is not the Yakuza series. It’s karaoke. It’s karaoke. He even has the stats.
Horii maintains a spreadsheet listing all songs that he is able to sing while karaoke. He keeps a spreadsheet of all the songs he can sing at karaoke. Horii copies it once per year. He printed a second copy in case he needed it. It is a meticulously detailed document that spans 7,964 songs. I am grateful that he handed it back to me.
Horii was an avid Sega fan growing up. He even owns eight Sega Saturns – a fact he proudly proclaimed during his job interview all those years back. Karaoke was his key to getting him in the door, and helped him ascend the ranks.
“[During my job interview]They wanted to know more about me. I said, ‘My hobby is karaoke,’” Horii told Denfaminicogamer in 2018 (translation via Carrie Williams). “When I had the final interview with Nagoshi, he said, ‘A lot of guys have karaoke as a hobby,’ which is, of course, true. So I had to find some way of showing him, ‘I’m not like those other guys.’
“So I showed him my karaoke list I showed you before, saying, ‘Other guys don’t do this,’ with a bit of a smile, and I was offered the job.”
Horii spent a lot of time working on the Yakuza side content. In the samurai-themed, Japan-only spinoff Yakuza: Kenzan, he created the waterfall training rhythm-based minigame, which steered him to leading Yakuza 3’s karaoke minigame. This was a perfect circle of professionals if ever there was one. But it also came with some hardship. Initially, he says coworkers criticized him for going too far with the minigame – at the time, it was uncharacteristic to have the generally-stoic protagonist, Kiryu, doing something so goofy. His instincts were right and it was a hit in Yakuza. It helped to humanize Kiryu.
These days, Horii is probably most well-known for directing Yakuza: Like A Dragon – a radical departure for the series, trading its signature brawler combat for turn-based RPG action. Now he’s directing its sequel.
Horii highlights how RGG lets its employees experiment or alter the series’ formula, taking it in radically different directions than previous games. Which is a defining trait of the series’ biggest entries, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza: Like A Dragon. The former is a prequel, taking the story all the way back to the ’80s during Japan’s economic miracle. This reimagines characters, and tells their stories to make them relevant for modern gaming. This introduces new characters and story themes as well as the previously mentioned play style.
From RGG’s perspective, the success of these two games comes down to a few key points. The first is Yakuza 0’s localization. Historically, the series had never received heavy localization efforts, especially as the series went on and western success seemed like it wasn’t ever going to happen. Yakuza Zero proved this assumption to be wrong.
As told by Yokoyama, the second reason was both games were good entry points into the long-running series; they invited people who were curious about the Yakuza games but didn’t have a good jumping on point. Yakuza, Like A Dragon, dropped the number convention in order to emphasize that point. In Japan, it’s still Ryu Ga Gotoku 7.
These two games helped turn the series into something of a phenomenon worldwide, and there’s no shortage of games for that massive influx of fans. There are currently 19 Yakuza titles, both mainline and spinoffs. The series was launched in 2005. The series has seen seven games worldwide released, with some also being released in Japan. This doesn’t include other RGG-developed games such as Binary Domain, Super Monkey Ball, and Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise.
But RGG isn’t slowing down. Our interview was conducted at a Like A Dragon Event. RGG announced a remake in Japan of Like A Dragon, Ishin. Like A Dragon Gaiden is the Man Who Erased He Name will follow the release. And finally, Like A Dragon 8. This year’s long-awaited Like A Dragon 8. RGG ends the evening with an afterparty celebrating the announcement. It’s also worth pointing out: the studio officially changed the series’ name worldwide to match its Japanese name – and reflect the declining prevalence of the Yakuza both in the fiction and the real world. Like A Dragon is the new Yakuza series.
The company’s name changes highlight a number of key facts. One is that RGG isn’t afraid to rebrand its cash cow at the height of its global popularity and recognizability. Two, especially compared to other annualized series like Call of Duty, which despite their continued immense success are plagued by conversations about “franchise fatigue,” people still seem more than eager to devour RGG’s games. Sakamoto swiftly answers questions about why that team believes it is.
“In the end, people play our games, and they see the quality is there, and the games are still fun,” he says. “So, I think that kind of settles the question.”
Even if it’s always experimenting, according to these seven, no matter what’s changed around here, it’s business as usual. They’re here to make video games the way they want to make them. And the continued popularity of the Yakuza series around the globe hasn’t changed that fact.
“Just like you write articles, we make Yakuza games,” Yokoyama says. “That’s our daily lives. It doesn’t matter if we feel strange about the situation. No. We’re continuing doing what we’re always doing.”
“Yeah, things just haven’t changed here,” Horii adds. “We just make what we think will be fun.”
“Maybe it’s an American picture,” Yokoyama says. “But from us, we notice, ‘Oh hey, look. It seems that profit numbers are increasing in the U.S. We’re selling a little bit more; that’s cool.’ I guess we’re being interviewed now here. So maybe that’s like, ‘Oh, people are noticing us more.’”
It’s a little confusing; RGG both says things around the studio feel the same yet offers numerous examples of how it’s changed. Maybe when you’re in it, you can’t always identify what around you is different until you zoom out with a 50-foot lens. Or until a reporter inquires. Yet, the clock ticks. Maybe things will be the same in 10 years for RGG’s remaining employees. And maybe when they take a second to see the bigger picture, they’ll notice how much has changed.
Sakamoto asks Yokoyama for his business card to give us some examples. As he points out, the studio isn’t actually called Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. It’s Sega’s First Development Division. RGG, as he calls it, is only a nickname.
No matter how you name it, Yakuza (Like A Dragon series) is what the studio is most famous for. Maybe one day, that won’t always be the case.
“We have lots of other not-announced titles,” Yokoyama says. “Things outside of the same Ryu Ga Gotoku universe that we’re working on.”
They will always change. These men might not be here in 10 years. Or maybe all of them will, but they’ll be joined by seven other developers, all rising into leadership positions, taking the studio in wildly different directions.
Nagoshi’s departure seemed extreme from the outside. Yokoyama knows that it is normal. It’ll happen again, probably. He says he’s bad at envisioning the future, but change isn’t bad. It’s just how things work out.
“All these members here have been doing this same job together for over 10 years,” Yokoyama says about the team around him. “We knew that one day a split would come, and somebody would end up leaving and doing something else. I think that’s a natural thing. That’s when the split took place. The possibility of it happening again is possible in the near future. [Someone else] might leave to do something that they want to do.”
He reiterates one more time, “Things naturally come about.”
Original publication: Issue 351 Game Informer.
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