Interview: Localizing Yakuza with Scott Strichart

Scott Strichart has worked on localizing and marketing fan-favorite franchises like Persona, Ni no Kuni and Final Fantasy. These days he’s heading localization efforts for the Yakuza series. We talked with him about the process of bringing Yakuza 0 to the West!

Graham Russell, Michibiku: Thanks for talking to us, Scott! To start, could you talk a bit about your history in games localization and your involvement with Yakuza 0?

Scott Strichart: All right, I’ll give you the 30-second version. (laughs) I started at Atlus in 2007, and I was here for four years. I was on the team for Persona 4 vanilla, Radiant Historia, 3D Dot Game Heroes and a couple of other things. From there, I spent two years at Level-5. I was one of their first production employees in the North American branch. I worked on the Guild series and Ni no Kuni, and then I went to Square Enix as a brand manager for two years on Final Fantasy.

That’s when the guys here — Sam Mullen and Bill [Alexander] — they called me back and were like, “yo, we need someone to do Yakuza.” And I’m like, “that sounds like a plan.” It was all pretty serendipitous because we had just bought a house down here in Orange County, so it worked out as beautifully as it possibly could for me to make my return to steward Yakuza.

Since you started out at Atlus, what’s it like to return, and how’s the company different from your original stint?

Well before I left, Atlus really hadn’t done the whole “Atlus + Sega” thing, and now that there’s this Sega involvement here, it’s only gotten better. There’s this kind of merging of ideas of how Sega does things and Atlus does things. Everyone’s working on either Sega products or Atlus products, but the company culture is still very much Atlus while the Sega influence helps it become more than Atlus, I guess I would say.

For Yakuza 0, what was that localization like? Was it a big team effort? How were duties split?

For Yakuza 0, this was the first time that Atlus was going to be handling some of that localization. Previously, Sega had outsourced it to this great group of localization guys named Inbound. We weren’t going to toss Inbound off of these projects at all; they’ve done a great job on the whole franchise. So we asked Inbound to also work on Yakuza 0, and what they did is provide the entire translation, which in truth could have been thrown directly in the game, because they’re that good.

What happened after that is that Atlus — well me, really, me and one other editor, his name’s Dirk — we went through and did a second pass on everything, taking it to that next level of localization. Where Sega had not previously done all of the kinds of bells-and-whistles-type stuff on the title cards, the chapter titles, the honorifics… all that stuff was our decision to take that in a new direction for Yakuza, especially considering we were going back to the beginning and this was kind of our opportunity to reboot the localization for the franchise.

Do you think that’s what Atlus really brings to these Sega projects, that extra degree of polish?

I wouldn’t say that the Sega games have any type of bad localization before, but Atlus is known to be best-in-business and they pride themselves a lot on that. When we did Persona 4 back in the day, people really liked that localization, and when we did Radiant Historia, people really liked that localization. I think that Atlus continues to have to build its own kind of chops. We can’t sit on it. We can’t just call ourselves one of the best places to do localized content if we’re not going to stay ahead of the curve. Every game gets that kind of treatment, and that’s definitely one of the great things about working with Atlus.

The Yakuza games — especially 0 — walk the line between authenticity and parody. There’s so much that the games want to portray with realism, but then it’s followed by wackiness. How do you approach localization when there are such differing tones in one game?

It’s absolutely crazy, you’re absolutely right to point that out. And it’s so tough to explain, because when someone says “what’s Yakuza,” well… for the longest time, people interpreted Yakuza as, well, it’s Japanese Grand Theft Auto. And it’s absolutely not! It’s not a crime simulator, it’s not… whatever Grand Theft Auto is, Yakuza isn’t. Back in the day, when they called Ryu ga Gotoku — which of course translates to “like a dragon” — Yakuza, maybe they were aiming for it to be a sort of Japanese Grand Theft Auto.

But since those days, the series has really found its footing in this salty-sweet blend of absolute photorealism and over-the-top nonsense. So it’s not hard for us from a localization perspective, because the game’s doing it already. The main story is this gritty, hardcore crime drama, and the sub-stories are over-the-top batty stuff, you know? The game does that balancing for us, and it guides us when, okay, this is the ridiculous part, or this is when it needs to be super-serious. There’s definitely something to be said for the way that CS1 (the division of Sega that builds Yakuza) does this franchise.

There’s a lot about this game that’s a prequel, designed to provide backstory for characters you’re already supposed to know. But so many Western players haven’t played Yakuza! How did you approach this in localization? Did you try to provide more context?

The cool thing about 0 is yeah, it’s a prequel, but I wouldn’t say that it actually expects you right off the bat to know who these dudes are. When Nishikiyama rolls up on you at the very beginning of the game, he gets what we internally call the don-don. (laughs) It’s basically just those little title cards where the character appears and it freezes to black and white for a bit — we lovingly call those don-dons because that’s the noise it makes — but if the game was expecting you to know who he was, it certainly wouldn’t give him that, you know?

Right out of the gate, that first hour of content is literally explaining Kiryu’s situation. It’s explaining where they’re at in life. I don’t think it really throws characters at you in a way that says “you know who this is already.” Maybe there are some characters later in the game where it says “you might know who this is, and if you do you’re going to get more out of it,” but it certainly doesn’t leave newcomers to the series in the dark.

I think 0 is one of the most perfect starting places for the game — for the franchise — because you can get in on the ground floor. A lot of people will point to Kiwami or Yakuza 1 being of course the first franchise starting point, but now that we’ve announced that we’re doing both, I would say get in at 0 and then get Kiwami too.

But if you really cannot justify getting 0 right now — and I understand, we’re in the middle of Japanageddon (laughs) — Kiwami’s coming in a couple of months and you can go back and play 0 then. The two connect to each other in a way that’s really symbiotic and a great way to get into Yakuza. Both of those games will provide your entry into the franchise without issue.

It almost feels like it’s begging for an official play order. Is it chronological? Is it release order?

The Internet will argue about this until the end of time. I wouldn’t say that you’re not doing yourself a favor by starting with 0, because you absolutely are. Again, ground floor, Kiryu’s 20 years old, things are right where they start.

When working on localizing 0, was there any effort to look back at the original localization of Yakuza 1 since it’s supposed to be before those events and try to match that style for consistency in this one?

When I came back, I was a complete Yakuza noob and completely under the impression that we were looking at “Grand Theft Auto Japanese.” (laughs) I was very fortunate that I had a couple of months before Yakuza 0 was going to kick off on localization, and I was able to sit down and literally play from Yakuza 1 to Yakuza 5, and as I pride myself on doing, I became a Yakuza bible.

How many months did that take?

Well Yakuza 5 came out last December, and I was ready to start Yakuza 5 by the time it came out.

That’s impressive! These games are not short.

No, they’re not! I unfortunately had to go along the critical path, and I didn’t get to see a lot of the sub-stories in 3, 4 and 5, but I got what I needed to out of those, for sure.

So going back to your question, do you take from Yakuza 1… not just Yakuza 1. We looked at from Yakuza 1 through 5 and how the series has evolved. Originally in Yakuza 1, Shintaro Kazama was incorrectly labeled as Fuma, and they were “incorrectly” addressing him as Kazama. Over time, you can watch… they corrected Kazama’s name, and even though they continued to call him Kazama at times, we looked at that and said, no, we’re going to get this to be a little more authentic. When you don’t dub the game, you’re hearing these characters be like “Kiryu, Kiryu, Kiryu” and when the subtitle says “Kazuma, Kazuma, Kazuma,” it’s disconnecting you a bit from what’s being said. So our approach to this was how far can we draw the English into what they’re actually saying without actually losing the player into a non-localization, a literal translation that would be so boring and dry that you wouldn’t want to play it.

But it’s such a fine line. It’s a very fine line between those two things, and I feel like we threaded it pretty well in 0. The balance between those turned out pretty great, yeah.

Not just with consistency with previous releases, there’s a lot of the localization of Yakuza that’s trying to explain Japanese culture to Western audiences.

(laughs) Yeah.

As an example, there’s the Shogi minigame, which was localized not just translate what was there, but also to explain Shogi to people and make it playable.

You know, it sucks that, in the previous Yakuza games, in order to play Shogi you’d have to have a second screen up just to look up what the pieces were. Forget playing the game, just knowing what the pieces were would require a second screen. So the effort has been continually to reduce the need for that kind of resource outside of the game. We rewrote the entire Mahjong tutorial too, and now it’s 34 pages of Mahjong explanation that you are welcome to dive into should you so desire. And even then you still might not quite get it, but there’s only so much we can do without literally putting a YouTube video in there to walk you through some Mahjong.

Atlus in particular, on the spectrum of keeping things authentic versus adjusting things to make sense of references to Japanese culture, is a bit more than most on the side of maintaining authenticity. How do you know where to draw the line, when to adjust things so people understand them and when to say “well, that’s just what they do?”

It’s a tough line to draw! I can’t say with certainty that “this is exactly where we draw the line,” because there isn’t one. It has to be this case-by-case basis where, well, this is explained prior in the game, or this is voiced and we can’t work an explanation into that because that’s not what the voice is saying.

But a lot of the sub-stories, for instance! Like the Majima sub-story where the dude is on the ground and he has a stajun — a stadium jumper or varsity jacket — we cleverly worked that in there, “you see, in Japan, they call these stajun,” and Majima is like “well, I wouldn’t know that.” There’s a lot of that kind of thing where we’re able to work in an explanation at the same time as the characters are clearly like, “yeah, no duh.”

Again, it’s a per-project basis where we have to make those calls, and it’s really tough; there’s no right way or wrong way to do it, and sometimes you just learn from doing it. It’s really tough to say that there’s a particular line to draw, because there isn’t.

While we’re on the topic of drawing lines: Yakuza 0 goes some places with its mature content.

Fair enough! (laughs)

And yet that content is seemingly totally preserved. Were there any times when that caused trouble with the ESRB or Sega of America, and how do you resolve that?

When you’re doing an M-rated game — Yakuza’s been an M-rated game for the entire time that it’s been released, it’s never dipped into Teen — in the industry, we often talk about “soft Ms and hard Ms,” and to us, Yakuza sits at a “hard M.” (laughs) It would be an issue if it ever pushed into AO, but the ESRB has very clear guidelines about what constitutes an M-rated game versus what constitutes an AO game, and the dev team is smart enough to know what those lines are, even for the Americas and Europe, to make sure that they don’t cross that line.

I was confident that the game was going to get an M. Yeah, there’s the stuff in there, the gravure videos, and it’s like, “okay, that’s there…”

It is! It is totally there.

(laughs) I don’t make a point to highlight it, the marketing doesn’t really highlight it, it’s not a selling point, it’s not something people really need… but at the same time, you don’t take it out. In today’s localization climate, taking stuff out of an M-rated game for the purposes of censoring content is just not where you want to go with something.

Was there anything that was difficult to bring over from a licensing perspective?

You may have caught a lot of the conversation about the two songs from a band called Shonan no Kaze that did not make it over to our version, and that’s not censored content, that’s a licensing issue.

And I can’t really speak to the business part of it, but I will say that the way that licensing music is structured in Japan can be so prohibitive that, if it’s going to hurt a project’s feasibility for localization, of course, of course we have to cut the music. You know? I’d rather bring a game over to the States than say “sorry, we couldn’t bring that over because there was a music licensing issue.”

Would you say that, over the years, it’s gotten a little better as the Japanese side of things has become more prepared with licensing?

You know, Japan would have to get out in front of it and be like, “well, we know that the US and the EU are going to want to localize this game, so maybe we can negotiate worldwide type of rights,” but that’s going to vary for every musician, every artist, how many songs they use… it’s no easy task, you know? It’s still an issue, and I don’t think that we’re any closer to solving it for the Yakuza series than we have been before, despite the fact that we are making our best efforts to look at things and see what we can do.

It’s tough. At the end of the day, it’s just a tough thing to try to accomplish.

Well in the case of those two songs, I have to say: if somebody plays this game and says “oh, well this was two songs away from being enough content,” I don’t know what game they’re playing. There’s too much game in this game.

I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the songs that were replaced, and I get it — you know, they’re not the ones that were taken out — but the replacement songs are always created by the Ryu ga Gotoku sound team internally, they’re approved all the way up the chain. It’s not like we just throw in some type of generic butt rock. (laughs) The Japanese team takes a lot of pride and care into replacing those songs if they have to.

One of the big selling points for the Yakuza series in Japan is getting all these famous actors to play these roles, and that’s part of the authenticity is that you get real acting out of these main characters. Are there any issues with that outside of Japan, even just from a recognizability perspective?

Using the characters is never an issue. We’ve never had a problem yet where we had to replace a character.

In the Chinese version of Yakuza 0, they replace a late-game character with an actual Chinese actor, because it made sense in that market to do that, it was a cool thing for them. Our version is of course the localized Japanese version, so you don’t have that Chinese guy in there. That’s just an interesting little tidbit.

What does suck about it is that, oftentimes, our audience has no idea who these people are. We have all this incredible talent in these games and We’re like “Yo, check this out, it’s this person!,” and they’re like, “yeah, I have no idea who that is.”

It’s unfortunately just kind of a “lost in translation” thing, it doesn’t create a selling point for the game. They’re still great to have, because of course their acting chops are top-notch. They’re the greatest actors in Asia sometimes, you know? We got Beat Takeshi in 6, that’s incredible! And you’re not going to look at him and be like “well, he blew that line!”

Can you imagine if you were dubbing Beat Takeshi’s lines? Who would we get?

Well I imagine you can imagine that.

Yeah. (laughs) We have fun talking about that sometimes, just off-the-cuff. Who would be the equivalent of Beat Takeshi in the States?

Who is the Western Beat Takeshi?

You know who the consensus is? Bill Murray.

Not that we would have any hope of getting Bill Murray to do a voice in Yakuza, not that we would ever even consider dubbing it at this point, I just think it was an interesting conversation to have.

Sounds about right! Yakuza 0, like most Yakuza games, contains arcade games. What localization work needs to be done on those, which are essentially standalone things?

There’s a studio Sega works with called M2 who has become the stewards of Sega ages past.

And whenever they can get them to do it, anyone else, because they’re the best in the business.

Exactly. Those games are ported directly by M2, they’re running on their own executables inside the game which is why there’s a slightly longer loading time when you go into one of those games, and you know, they’re the best at what they do. You can see that when you press L1 and get the different styles — the screen elongates, the CRT lines filter in — they have been so great at maintaining Sega’s archival history of games that I for one am just super-stoked that they rely on them to put these games in, because they’re a piece of Sega history that would otherwise just go by the wayside. People need to see where Sega came from, I think.

While talking to you, we would be remiss if we didn’t bring up your time at Level-5, specifically the Guild games, because they seem like such an anomaly, not just in development but also in localization. They’re such weird little things that there must be stories behind what it took to bring those over.

Yeah, definitely. I was essentially the production guy at Level-5 America, and the desire to bring those over was led by our vice president and me. (laughs) So yeah, it was a struggle, and each game’s creators had very heavy input on how those game looked and felt in English, but at the end of the day, I’m just super-happy that we were able to do them, because Weapon Shop de Omasse was… when people ask, “what’s one of the best games you’ve ever localized,” I say that one. It’s hilarious.

The Starship Damrey was great, Attack of the Friday Monsters was also incredible…

It’s the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a localized Boku no Natsuyasumi, so…

Exactly, right? Little, cute, amazing, fun games made by people… the tagline for Guild was “the chains are off,” these guys get to do what they want to do and make little games that were fun and cool, and it was a pleasure to localize those.

Well it’s great that we got them, and it’s a shame that that can’t keep going, you know?

Well, Hino-san is a man of his own desires, and if he decides that he ever wants to do a Guild03, he will, because he is a man of his own desires. (laughs)

You also have this perspective, having spent time on the marketing side with Square Enix. How is it different to approach a game when you’re doing the selling as opposed to the localization side?

Having had a localization background, I think I did bring a pretty interesting perspective to marketing because I was always consumer-first. Everything about every plan I made, every thing I wanted to sell was “is this good for the consumer, is this going to be something they want,” and I didn’t always win those battles. The dollars have to come before the consumers sometimes.

But one of the great things about Atlus is they’re very consumer-friendly as well. With the Business Edition of Yakuza 0, the business card holder thing is literally free. They’re not charging a premium edition upgrade, and those are the kinds of decisions I support from a marketing perspective.

Going into the marketing world taught me a whole lot, but at the same time, from my perspective, if you think of my life as a skill board, I have all these points allocated into localization, production and marketing… sometimes I feel like this Red Mage-type that has learned a lot about everything but excelled at nothing. (laughs)

Have you ever felt a desire to hop over the fence? Telling marketing “you should be doing this” or, back when you were in marketing, “maybe we should tweak this line”?

Yes! I felt that all the time, but I think I’m able to successfully compartmentalize myself and say “not my job, let them do their jobs, I’m going to do mine.” I work with a lot of great people who took my feedback into consideration on a lot of stuff, whether that was marketing to loc or loc to marketing, and being the Yakuza bible in my head that I am now, they lean a lot on me on the things they want to do, and there’s just a lot of cool stuff that we’ve been able to do because we have such a great relationship with the marketing department here.

I know you have two more Yakuza games to do. Is that your life for the foreseeable future?

Absolutely. I was brought on with the intention of these three games being the spearhead of the Yakuza reboot-ish kind of thing for the West. 0’s getting some great traction but we have to build on that for Kiwami and also for 6, so… there’s a lot of work to do. (laughs) There’s a lot of work to do, but for the foreseeable future, those definitely are my life until 2018 when Yakuza 6 launches and hopefully it’s where we want it to be by that point!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Thanks again to Scott for talking to us! You can send screenshots of your favorite Yakuza 0 lines to him on Twitter.

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