Understanding Yakuza’s Odd Rise to Stardom
Once a game series gets into its fourth or fifth installment, the book has typically been written on it. Fans have an idea of the quality of the series, the games have found as big of an audience that it can reach, and there aren’t going to be any huge changes without a complete rebranding or reboot. As anyone who has played SEGA’s Yakuza series can attest to, it’s not your typical franchise.
While always a success in Japan, Yakuza struggled to find its footing in North America and Europe. The games initially got a big push from SEGA, as they went all out for the localization of the PlayStation 2 original. Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, was brought in to play the role of Majima, and SEGA had high hopes that Yakuza could be their Grand Theft Auto III, a larger-than-life hit that took players to a new location and let them get to live a life of crime.
The problem with that attitude was that Yakuza was a story-heavy brawler that focused on building redeemable characters, not an open-world playground that let you murder everyone in sight with minimal consequence. Thus it’s no surprise in hindsight when SEGA didn’t have a hit on their hands. While the 2006 release didn’t bomb in North America, it wasn’t quite the hit SEGA was looking for. The company pushed the game hard with a top-notch localization and marketing, so it was considered a disappointment. When its sequel came out, there was no voice acting, and fans had to settle for reading subtitles. This wasn’t a creative choice, but a cost-cutting measure that made the series feel cheap at the time, and players knew it.
The years that followed were uncertain ones for fans of the series. Yakuza 3 came out for PlayStation 3, but with a significant amount of side-content removed. This began a rocky slide for the series (not in quality, but in SEGA’s understandable weariness to promote it), which culminated in Yakuza 5 taking three years to release in North America as a digital-only product.
The series’ fortune all changed with the release of Yakuza 0, a prequel title that stars the series’ two most beloved characters: Kiryu and Majima. While it wasn’t positioned as a huge release for SEGA, a buzz about the action game started to spread on social media. Was it a viral campaign orchestrated internally, or did fans rally together to get it noticed by a greater audience? No, it was all due to a chicken named Nugget.
Ok yeah goty hands down thank you sega pic.twitter.com/9kTAB1ZZj9
— LennyReviews (@LennyReviews) January 17, 2017
One of the first players to get their hands on the game was @LennyReviews, and he was able to show off a brief clip from one of the game’s funniest sub stories, which revolves around Kiryu getting a “turkey” in bowling (throwing three strikes in a row) and then winning a reward. What was Kiryu’s reward? No, it wasn’t a trophy or a discount on some bowling shoes, it was an actual turkey! Well, actually it was a chicken, and one that wasn’t cooked but completely alive. It’s a ridiculous situation, and it eventually ends with the amazing punchline that Kiryu can use Nugget in the game’s in-depth real estate management mini-game.
All of this was able to go viral thanks to one thing: the PlayStation 4’s Share button. Sony’s most forward-thinking feature on the PS4 was the ability to integrate social media at the touch of a player’s’ fingertips, and @LennyReviews was able to share this now famous scene with ease. He didn’t have to own a capture unit, he just had to press a button. His thought process was a simple one. “[The scene] stood out [because] it was just silly. I found it hilarious and incredibly unexpected.”
It’s this simplicity that essentially allows players on social media to do a marketing team’s job for them (In fact, @LennyReviews says that SEGA reached out for analytic details on his tweet, and said the company sent him a code for Yakuza Kiwami as a thank you), as long as the content is compelling enough to be shared by players’ own free will. Since Yakuza 0 is filled with an incredibly funny localization, an amazing script to work with, and some of the most incredibly dumb scenarios seen in any game, it became an instant hit on social media. I couldn’t log into Twitter for a month after release without seeing screenshots from SEGA’s game, and I still see screens of it today.
This underlines just how important the Share button is, and it makes SEGA’s decision to make the feature inaccessible in Persona 5 all the more confusing. That game was still able to dominate my Twitter feed, but it was with a lot of blurry photos. Just imagine how many potential viral moments were missed because the average player couldn’t easily share their playthrough with the world? It’s a missed opportunity, and one that drives me crazy when I think about it.
Regardless of whether or not SEGA learned a lesson, it’s clear that social media and the Share button can have a huge impact on a game’s chance of success. Nothing can beat the earnest buzz of a grassroots campaign, and now Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original game that failed to captivate North American audiences 10+ years ago, has the chance to take the Yakuza series to even greater heights in North America. It’s an incredible achievement, and something that could only happen in today’s socially connected world.