Over 10 Years Later and We're Still Looking for Those Sailors: Why it is Now or Never for Shenmue 3
It has been 13 years since the original Shenmue released on Dreamcast, and 11 years since the second game ended on a cliffhanger. That makes the six year wait since the cliffhanger ending of Half-Life 2: Episode Two a walk in the park. A lot has changed since 2000; if a third Shenmue game were to happen, would it even be able to live up to expectations?
Shenmue was originally planned as a Virtua Fighter RPG on the Saturn, and became the most expensive game ever made in its day by the time it finally released. The game pioneered the open world concept, but was largely overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto III, which released one year after Shenmue. Game budgets have inflated by quite a bit since then, and Grand Theft Auto V cost over three times as much to develop.
The Sega of today is also an entirely different entity. No longer a console manufacturer, and primarily a publisher, there are only three series left that they steadily develop: Sonic, Hatsune Miku, and Yakuza.
Yuji Naka, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Yukio Futatsugi, and pretty much anyone else responsible for producing classic Sega hits have long left the company--including Shenmue creator, Yu Suzuki.
Yakuza is generally considered a spiritual successor to Shenmue, and after Shenmue Online failed to make it out of development limbo, one would assume Sega doesn't have much interest in a Shenmue 3. At least until this image of Ryo in Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing: Transformed surfaced.
Besides having the trifecta of classic Sega arcade cabinets (OutRun, Hang-On, Afterburner) as his vehicle, there is a pretty auspicious license plate catching people's attention. Some have seen this as Sega declaring the intention to finally complete the Shenmue trilogy; however, I do not.
The developer for Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing: Transformed is Sumo Digital, a third-party studio. They've developed games for Sony, Microsoft, and Konami aside from their work for Sega.
A year passed between Sumo Digital's DLC character poll and Ryo releasing. Even now, he's only in the mobile version of the game; the PC DLC confirmed by a leak, and the console DLC is still a big question mark. With so little support from Sega's end, I would highly doubt any insider knowledge coming from Sumo Digital as to the future of Shenmue.
So why is it now or never?
Grand Theft Auto has set the bar for open world games, and I find it hard to think Sega would devote the resources to making a game on that scale. The studio responsible for Shenmue, Sega AM2, hasn't developed anything outside of a port since 2010, with the arcade release of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. This could mean the studio either quietly dissolved after Suzuki left, or the long-shot that perhaps they've been developing Shenmue 3 in secrecy for the last three years.
I tend to believe AM2 is still alive, because there is a pretty active Virtua Fighter 20th anniversary site. VF characters have been all over the place recently, appearing in Project X Zone, Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate, and Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax. I think it is more than likely they're working on Virtua Fighter 6 rather than Shenmue 3.
I think this year we will get an answer from Yu Suzuki himself as to the future of the series. March is right around the corner, and he will be giving a postmortem on Shenmue at GDC 2014. Interestingly enough, the lead architect of the Playstation 4, Mark Cerny, will be translating for Suzuki. You could wildly speculate this means Shenmue 3 is coming as a Playstation 4 exclusive. In reality, it just means Cerny worked at Sega in Japan for a number of years and is friends with him.
If it will make money, anything is possible in video games.
Would it make as much money as Grand Theft Auto V? I really don't think that's the case, there's already a whole generation of gamers who missed the series entirely. The games have aged quite well, however, and perhaps a HD port of the first two games would help grow the brand recognition. With Sega's reluctance to even release the recent Yakuza games in the USA though, I don't have much hope at all.
Shenmue was a terrific and influential game. The series is nothing more than a cult classic at this point... on which Sega isn't likely to make a profit on if they made a proper third game. The game will live on in our hearts and the occasional Ryo Hazuki cameo.