When discussing Shenmue's revival and the role played by the Team Yu project with its #SaveShenmue campaign, a phrase we like to use is "standing on the shoulders of giants," because our own contributions would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by others.
From joining the scene in 2012, our aim with the monthly Tweetathon was always to engage the more casual Shenmue fans - those who wanted to see a third game in the series but weren't hanging around dedicated forums over a decade after Shenmue II's release. To acquire the strength in numbers that we hoped would turn the tide in Yu Suzuki's favor, it was necessary to attract participation from beyond the hardcore.
But we couldn't reach those outliers on our own. Creating a movement for others to join required having a community already in place, offering direct access to a foundation of supporters who would lend the Tweetathon momentum from day one.
And so, as we proudly honor them on our new Campaign Timeline, we feel the time is right to learn more about the fan sites and discussion groups that held the Shenmue community together through thick and thin. Read on as we scour the globe and speak with some of these online clubhouses' most prominent figures, past and present, to piece together exactly how their humble hobby pages and international strongholds kept a giant dream alive for longer than Sega dared imagine.
When the November 2000 edition of Dreamcast Magazine was published in the States, complete with a cover disc previewing an upcoming game that defied all existing labels, high school freshman Andy Bandos was captivated. "I read the magazine article over and over, but I was disappointed not to find much of anything online," he recalls today, "GameSpot and IGN had very few details. I figured I could use my newly acquired web design talents to make something better."
What he came up with was Ryo's Place, later to be renamed Shenmue Dojo.
"I think I originally made something for my own enjoyment and fun," he continues, "I liked to code and design graphics. I just added materials for months before I added a forum. It was then that I was pleasantly surprised that people appreciated my efforts. The community was great."
Indeed, after a mishandled launch hit sales of Shenmue II and expectations of a third game in the series began to wane, it was the camaraderie between this group of online friends that preserved Andy's commitment to running the site: "I think my interests were starting to wander into other games and hobbies, but I felt an obligation to keep the site alive because of all the great people who enjoyed it. It's weird to say, but it was a great community that I felt welcomed by and a part of. I think the vibrant forums, and not my efforts to make a great website, are what kept it going for so long. It was the community that made Shenmue Dojo."
Is it really so weird to say? Maybe not from our perspective, but then there are reasons why the fans we'd seek to recruit with the Tweetathon had never immersed themselves in the microcosm of BBS culture. Like many online forums, particularly those dedicated to pursuits whose followers average below a certain age, the Dojo would experience its ups and downs through the parade of personalities that passed through its doors. Under new ownership and with information on Shenmue's future becoming increasingly scarce, attentions gradually turned to less productive forms of interaction. From disruptive trolls and destructive hackers, to admins raising hell over political dissent, Shenmue's oldest surviving messageboard has weathered it all in the years gone by.
One former administrator who believes he "earned a reputation as a moron, a doofus, an asshole," is Adam, known at the time by his screen names Ryudo and Bluecast. "Early on most had no trouble with me," he says, "I mucked it up later and I'm remembered mainly for that."
A moderator since 2004, he took on greater responsibility in 2009 and recalls excessive bickering with members and flying off the handle at trivial things, ultimately leading to his resignation from the forum staff "in a fit of stupid rage."
Yet even in the midst of these heightened emotions, Adam was not without self-awareness, having asked a moderator to keep an eye on his behavior and let him know if he got out of line. ("How silly is that?" he asks, "An admin asking a mod to moderate him. That's how absurd it got. I facepalm thinking about it.") So then how could he allow himself to persist in making enemies quite literally across the board?
Within the online bubble, especially under circumstances where patience has long since given way to collective frustration, we can all find it easy to forget that behind every username is a human being, whose actions on the Internet may be influenced by invisible struggles away from the keyboard.
"I was in a dark place," explains Adam, "I was actually dying in 2009-10. My organs and body were shutting down. I was vomiting everything I ate, and my eyes were so swollen I could barely keep them open, though I still worked a job. This affected my already troubled mental state. Even after I was stable physically, I suffered from what most heart patients suffer from: severe depression. I was suicidal. My obsession with Shenmue Dojo felt like it was the only place I had control, but I took it too far and affected the members in a negative way."
It's little wonder then that Adam's fondest memories belong to offshoot forums like Hazuki Dojo and a second incarnation of "Ryo's Place," created over the years to maintain the bond of friendship between those who'd grown apart from the larger site during difficult times.
Sometimes, tensions between admins and other members can simply arise from a new recruit being in the wrong place at the wrong time - at least in the eyes of those he's trying to serve.
"To be honest it didn't go down too well with a lot of members," recalls Patrick Ingham, owner of Shenmue-UK when he was brought in as an administrator of Shenmue Dojo in a partnership that he felt resulted in "scrutiny and backlash" from the Dojo's core user base: "I was only an occasional poster, so some people got angry because they didn't feel I deserved that job, and maybe they felt they deserved it more as I was not online enough to warrant the responsibility and title. They probably had a point."
Pat had launched Shenmue-UK in 2003, originally as Shenmue-Net until discovering the name was already in use (such is life on the Web). "I had other crappy sites too around the same time," he laughs, "But Shenmue-UK was the one I carried on with, as I had so much enthusiasm for Shenmue and the community seemed a really fun thing to be a part of."
While activity at the British site eventually tailed off like many smaller forums - despite the use of bleeding edge marketing tools of the era like web rings - Pat has no regrets, taking from his experience enjoyable memories of "simply running the site and making some great friends, with some great banter and shared enthusiasm for our hobbies and interests. Some damn good times were had."
Elsewhere in Europe, Rémy Louisin was catering to French-speaking fans with a site that remains very much a part of the community's efforts today. "I thought Shenmue was a videogame series with a bright future," explains Rémy, who takes his screen name Trent from the lead character of Perfect Dark, another game he'd made a website about, "So I decided to create my own site about Shenmue with the goal of providing the most complete information possible."
Originally to be named Shenmue Angel after its hosting provider, the site was launched as Shenmue Master on November 30th, 2001, coinciding with the release of Shenmue II in the region.
Becoming not only a rich resource of archived material, Shenmue Master would also bring the community exclusive interviews with Yu Suzuki on numerous occasions, thanks to a strong relationship with convention organizer and eventual Shenmue III co-producer Cédric Biscay. One of these interviews even inspired the creation of Team Yu, but of course you know this from reading our Campaign Timeline, right?
Speaking of time, one might wonder how Rémy ever found enough of it for all this work going into the site. "When I was a student it was quite easy," he says, "I was able to update the website after school and during holidays. I spent a lot of time writing new articles and coding. I am not a programmer since it is not my job in real life, but I am self-taught; I like discovering new things about web design, programming, and, in the case of Shenmue, about Japanese and Chinese cultures. When I started to work in 2012 it became more complicated because it took a lot of time. I could rely on Shenman and Shendream (the co-webmasters of Shenmue Master) as well as some members of the team such as Nin~Jy, Kenji or Sunmingzhao to help me. I could never thank them enough for everything they have done for many years."
Like the Dojo though, Rémy and his crew had to find a way to deal with a distinct lack of news for the majority of those years. How would they steer clear of any restless e-drama? "We never stopped writing articles on Shenmue Master, since Shenmue is more than a game for us, even if there were bad periods," he says, although "generally speaking, the most difficult part was to avoid reporting anything from unreliable sources that announced a hypothetical release of Shenmue III. But between false rumors and rare public appearances by Yu Suzuki, we always found topics to talk about; Shenmue is such an interesting saga."
France's neighbors agree, leading Philipp Scharlemann to leap upon the domain name Shenmue.de when he found it available in 2013. "I opened a German Shenmue fan site because it was missing," he explains, noting that previous sites in the language were no longer operational, "I think Shenmue has a huge fan base in Germany, and Shenmue.de is just my little contribution to the fan scene in my own language."
Philipp, who writes under the nickname JohnnyWohlfahrt (German for JohnnyWelfare), says that the site's blog format allows him to share more than just the biggest stories, and so he sources interesting content from around the Web - often from English-language social media posts.
This ability to translate news across language barriers has been a real strength of the international Shenmue community, however one pocket of the fan base that has struggled to reap such benefits are the Chinese. With various foreign sites, including Facebook and Twitter, blocked by the government, the country's fans who wish to use them are forced to learn about VPNs to bypass the ban. Most however rely on domestic networks, such as the QQ chat service and the discussion group platform Baidu Tieba.
When we reached out to Li from the latter's Shenmue "bar" (the term given to subject-specific forums created and subsequently accessed by typing keywords into the site's main search bar), it was the first instance of direct contact with overseas fans that he was aware of. While we're sure other connections have been made, it speaks to the isolation felt by the Chinese fan base that these conversations remain so novel. Li told us that one of his happiest experiences within the online community was seeing news from two of the bar's members about Yu Suzuki's November 2015 visit to Shanghai being shared on international fan sites.
Previous news to have reached distant shores concerned the donation of a projector to a primary school in Guilin, but we had never heard about the group also donating 200 books until speaking with Li, who had organized both collections under his Baidu Tieba username to_mo_e6.
These Chinese fans demonstrated the value of many individuals making small contributions to great effect, evoking one of the best remembered examples from the days when social networking was still catching on.
"I launched the Shenmue MySpace Campaign in March of 2007," recalls Nick Wisniewski, better known in some circles as 2ndOpp, "Like most fans, I was growing tired of no news on Shenmue III. I knew MySpace was still gaining popularity at the time, so it seemed like the perfect fit for a grass roots campaign."
The campaign's highlight, when measured in terms of both exposure and participation, was a mass mailing of toy capsules and letters to Sega's Japanese headquarters in late 2008. "Just before the mailing started, major gaming sites began posting news stories about our plans," Nick recalls, "I can't remember who broke the story but I freaked out when I saw my campaign picture with Ryo kneeling next to FedEx boxes on Kotaku. It was awesome to watch the fan response. I asked people to send me pictures of their toy capsule packages so we could keep track of how many went out. I also set up a donation link to make it easier for those who had never shipped internationally before. I had donations coming in from France, Turkey, Brazil... from all over the world. I used every single cent towards buying new toy capsules and shipping them myself, but I made sure to put the names of those who donated on the letters and boxes. In the end, I estimated that 7000 toy capsules had been shipped out. Sega never did respond."
As we can personally attest however, getting jaded forum users excited about a new initiative based on social media can be a slow process. "The biggest challenge of running the Shenmue MySpace Campaign was convincing people that I was serious and trustworthy," says Nick, "When I started discussing my idea to launch a viral social media campaign, many thought it was silly. When I finally did launch it, I went to every gaming forum I could find to announce it. I was initially met with a lot of hostility. As the page's membership grew however, people finally took it seriously. Once the fans were there, things went smoothly."
MySpace of course lost its position to Facebook as the popular choice of social network, which naturally spelled the end for what Nick had started. Or did it? "The decline of MySpace seemed to occur at the same time that I started focusing on school," he recalls, "I began frequenting the page less and began losing hope for Shenmue III. I figured if Sega would not respond to everything we did, what else could I try? That mass mailing received international attention and Sega said nothing. As my school projects became more demanding, I let the page slowly go silent. I was very happy to discover the Shenmue 500K group on Facebook. I see them as a spiritual successor to the old campaigns and they were moving forward with new ideas like supporting the Tweetathon from the beginning, which is still used today to request Shenmue I and II HD. I moved many of the old campaign's files to their page so the things the fans created for MySpace could live on."
Having been passed the torch of social media activism, Shenmue 500K was given its current structure by Aaron Barstow, who'd gravitated to Facebook for much the same reason that Nick had chosen MySpace years before: "The ability to reach the masses."
"Most Shenmue fans don't bother much with forums and such," tells Aaron, "This way we could make it easy for anybody to talk about the series, not just Internet leets, and not just people who spoke English either. I wanted to give Shenmue fans from all around the world a place to coalesce and Facebook was the most popular and simplest to use option. It also gives us the opportunity to share the series with people that wouldn't otherwise know about it. It's always nice to see new faces talking about how they wished they had played it sooner."
Prior to 500K, Aaron was best known for his Shenmue Stare blog, an outlet he used for campaigning on a daily basis for over three solid years, often with a new haiku, or comedic image or video. "It was a creative exercise intended to get people talking about Shenmue again," he explains, "At the time nobody was talking about the games at all, even Shenmue Dojo had pretty much given up on Shenmue III. So I made the blog in response to that basically. I wanted to show Sega that there was at least one person out there that still cared. It had to be done every day with a Ryo Hazuki-like sense of dedication, otherwise it was pointless. I felt the best way for me to help spread Shenmue awareness was to be the crazy idjit that wouldn't shut up about it. Figured if I did it everyday for a couple years someone would notice and follow suit in some manner."
What most readers won't have noticed was a subtle message in Aaron's blog posts for the month of July 2012, where the first letter of each title combined to spell out the Tweetathon's campaign hashtag at the time.
"I did it for almost three and a half years," he says, "Each and every day. If it wasn't for 500K, I'd likely still be doing it, but there wasn't time for both. Three years was enough. I fulfilled my vow. It was fun while it lasted!"
Blogging aside, like Nick with his campaigning on MySpace, Aaron recalls being met with some initial resistance toward making the most of new platforms, citing "difficulty being recognized by one individual from the Dojo in particular who didn't think much of social media at all." Other than that, however, "there haven't been any difficulties with people in general. Everyone tends to use 500K more as an extension of the other sites - it's more like a utility than a site in itself. We have members who have helped and continue to help on Shenmue Dojo and Shenmue Master projects - we all kind of blend together on Facebook."
This utility has been put to thorough use by fans organizing and supporting many projects over the past few years. "There were the collages, which were great fun," smiles Aaron about a series of campaign images comprising individual photos of fans holding up letters to spell out messages, "We've had members attend big events such as conventions, even in Dubai, handing out pamphlets for the Tweetathon, with others donating prizes to be given away on the 3rd of the month. We've had screensavers, phone apps, and translation projects. We've had meet-ups like the one put together last year, where a member made a Lucky Hit replica and gave it away as a prize. And on numerous occasions, the most important being Sony's #BuildingTheList survey and Sumo Digital's Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed poll, we've rallied the troops to make a difference. Those are the exact kind of activities the group is for."
While the #SaveShenmue campaign may owe much of its success to timing, coinciding as it did with important parts of the puzzle like the aforementioned survey, could more have been achieved sooner if social media had been around when production of the series first stalled?
"Damn skippy!" says Aaron, "The community tried a few stunts back in the day, which were fantastic, but without consistency they ultimately fell on deaf ears. If we'd had a Tweetathon to go along with those, we would have had Shenmue III long ago. In the end all of these things together made the intended impact, so better late than never. I think the key for us was to simply be dedicated and not shut up about it. Incessant whining for the win!"
"100% definitely YES," agrees Pat of Shenmue-UK, "As soon as social media - as much as I hate it - was in full swing, and people like Team Yu started using Twitter and Facebook to shove Shenmue III down the industry's throat, then I think it really did help promote things worldwide to a huge audience and not just hardcore Shenmue fans, which simply was not possible before."
"It's a different environment online today," notes Andy, "I'm sure Ryo's Place in 1999 would have had a Twitter account if it was available."
"For Shenmue III, social media was definitely a key factor of success," according to Rémy, who notes that unlike its Facebook page, Shenmue Master's Twitter account often posts in English, especially during the Tweetathon. "It is an easy way to be heard. When Yu Suzuki and Cédric Biscay were looking for partners and funding to make Shenmue III, being able to see many active Facebook and Twitter accounts was a way to attract investors and partners. Sony saw the demand for Shenmue III and now they are partners with Ys Net."
But with social media coming to play such a key role in the uniting and mobilizing of Shenmue fans across the globe, the state that Shenmue Dojo had fallen into may have brought its own future into question were it not for the strict measures of a new owner with a penchant for raising the dead.
Since changing hands from its founder, Andy, when he started college, the Dojo had seen new management threaten to destroy the forum in disputes with members, driving some away to other sites while those that remained grew weary and cynical of the news vacuum around Shenmue. It was into this environment in mid-2010 that George Melita aimed to bring his experience of running a Resident Evil fan site and breathe new life into his newest acquisition.
"It was miserable at first," recalls George, better known to the site's members as Yama, "Around the time I took over the website most of the hope around the Dojo was at an all-time low, thus the forum was filled with anything but Shenmue-related discussion. If the series was to have a future, the largest site needed to be taken seriously. I came into this project excited to make Shenmue the forefront of discussion once again, though not everyone supported this."
After a month spent redesigning much of the site, George revealed its new layout and structure to the forum's members. "The vocal minority found issue with just about every aspect,"he says, "They simply weren’t ready to welcome change. This was extremely difficult to deal with, especially after the immense amount of effort that went into the site for the good of the series. I continued to assure these users that they would still have a place to do as they saw fit, however it would no longer be the main focus of the forum - Shenmue would be. At the same time, I started to receive a great amount of emails thanking me for bringing back what once was, and for keeping the hope alive. This was another unexpected result of revitalizing the Dojo, however it was one that confirmed it was a community worth fighting for. Through continued patience and demonstrating respect to each and every user, the end result was a much better long term reception than even I could have imagined. Most all of the users came around eventually, some even going to great lengths to help support the site. Since the revamp the Dojo has been featured in major gaming publications as well as the official Shenmue III website. The balancing act of progressing without overstepping was by far the biggest challenge in taking over a pre-existing community."
Determined to make the Dojo less insular than the kind of reception that once met Aaron of 500K, George recognizes the benefit in there being a variety of Shenmue fan hubs around. "We all have a different perspective, though we all share the same goal," he says, "Thanks to the various communities out there, we were able to work together over the years and collectively voice ourselves at events both large and small around the world."
For its part, he adds that the Dojo has been "collectively keeping the series relevant in our own specific ways. Whether it be the excellent modders, writers, videographers or artists, so many of the members here at Shenmue Dojo have shared their passion for the series through their own unique perspective."
"Despite the rollercoaster ride of soap operas Shenmue Dojo has had over the years through myself or others causing drama," says Adam, "The fact the Shenmue community and the Dojo itself is still around shows how strong and committed they are."
"I am super surprised that the site is still around," admits founder Andy, "I visit maybe once a year and am always pleasantly surprised that it's there. I feel happy that I started something people still care about. I'm very grateful for those keeping it operating."
"The series was never meant to stop abruptly, nor the life of its website," says George, "Keeping the site relevant goes hand-in-hand with keeping hope alive. I feel like the website was like every other upon its creation - a portal for fans of an ongoing or current series. It’s what it became during the next decade that made it special."
So how did the community react to Yu Suzuki walking on stage at E3 2015 with news, at long last, of Shenmue III?
"This moment served as further evidence that we have one of the greatest fan bases of all time," says George, "While it was easy to be joyous and we were deserving of being so, most of the community got right to work. There were goals to fulfill in order to receive first Shenmue III and then the game that we deserve. The community wasted no time in figuring out the best methods to raise the funds necessary; we worked together with various outlets to secure the maximum exposure possible."
"Oh it was an amazing time," recalls Li of the Chinese response, "When we saw Mr Suzuki again at E3, most of us were crying, uncontrollably. Our dream had come true. So many fans came back to Baidu Tieba and the QQ group. We told each other the great news, summoning all fans to join the Kickstarter. We watched the videos every day. It was so sweet."
"There were so many great live reaction videos from everyone it was almost overwhelming if it wasn't so goddamned awesome," adds Aaron of 500K on Facebook, "Michael Huber called it 'the E3 of Dreams', and nothing truer has ever been said. It was a major event for us all, and just like our parents and grandparents today remembering where they were the day Kennedy was shot, fifty years from now when we're all robots, our grandkids will hear about this game series called Shenmue in Art History class at school and ask us, 'Grandpabot, where were you when you first heard the Shenmue III announcement?' And we'll have such stories to tell the li'l bastards!"
People replaced by robots? In our lifetimes? We do love Aaron's wild imagination!
But anyway, how was the reaction on Shenmue-UK? "Absolute deafening silence," laughs Pat, "Not a peep to be heard between the stream of shit posted by the spam bots."
...Yes, well, nobody asked you anyway, Patrick.
"On the day of the presentation of course the site had the highest visitor count since the day I started it," notes Philipp of Shenmue.de, "Unfortunately I was in hospital and couldn't watch the E3 conference live, and couldn't post any information about Shenmue III on the site. This made me very sad, because it made the site look inactive, so I at least posted a short explanation."
Thankfully Philipp has now recovered from both his hospital visit and the experience of hearing about Shenmue III via WhatsApp. Adam, too, is feeling better since his acrimonious departure as a Shenmue Dojo admin. "These days I am much happier," he says, "I still and always will struggle with crippling anxiety issues but I'm physically stable. Mentally I'm getting a lot of professional help and it's made me a slightly wiser and much, much calmer person. My fuse is very long now, although I still feel the need to improve myself and be better at social interaction."
The community offers plenty of opportunity for practice, as 500K's Aaron recalls: "One of my favorite memories was when a bunch of us all watched the live stream of the Shenmue Postmortem at GDC '14 together. Sipping on sake while analyzing every last detail Suzuki talked about, it was a great time! 500K has such a wild mix of people from literally everywhere. It's been a real privilege being able to meet and become friends with so many Shenmue fans from around the globe."
"The interaction with other fans was one of my favorite parts about the MySpace campaign," agrees Nick, "It was different from other communities, it felt like we had a deeper connection. I remember sharing Reuben Kee's Shenmue piano arrangement around the time of his death in 2007 and how it impacted us all. It was like we'd lost a brother. I think it would be amazing if Shenmue III's credits included his music and tributes to other fans we've lost."
"We have great relationships with the other websites and social media of the Shenmue community," says Rémy of Shenmue Master, "They became more concrete during MAGIC 2016 when we got the opportunity to meet Peter from Shenmue Dojo and James from Team Yu. Covering the event together is a great memory."
We of course concur, as George of the Dojo recalls similar highlights: "Meeting members from the community and developing lifelong friendships, there is nothing better or more meaningful," quoting Ryo Hazuki's father in the game's opening scene: "'Keep friends, those you love, close to you.'"
So what advice can this rejoicing community offer to fans of other long-awaited games with uncertain futures? "Don't give up," insists Pat, as Philipp agrees with a smile, "Don't stop believing."
"Persistence is key," says Aaron, "Ya gotta show the demand for these things in a consistent manner. It makes it easier for the people in charge to take the risk. And do whatever you can to get the word out."
"Be extremely vocal and don't let up," echoes George, "Focus your efforts and express them in a unified manner. As long as there is a passionate and vocal fan base, someone out there is listening and taking note."
Li seizes the chance to quote a line from martial arts movie The Grandmaster: "Something that stays in your mind will someday spring up in your life."
"And do not hesitate to force its destiny," adds Rémy, "By using social media in an efficient way."
Somewhere, Bruce Lee is nodding furiously.
The revival of Shenmue certainly demonstrates that anything is possible, and we hope that other gamers embrace it as a proof of concept that may pave the way for more returns of beloved yet buried IPs - if they're prepared to fight for them.
For fourteen years, the Shenmue community clung to the belief that whether Ryo Hazuki's journey would continue or not, the series deserved to be celebrated and kept alive in the hearts of all who knew its worth. Were it not for the sometimes grim determination of these virtual beacons, these pockets of resistance against the critics and naysayers who positively revelled in dismissing the franchise and its hopes of a future, then the task of assembling a successful movement over a decade later would have been exponentially harder.
So while we try not to shy away completely from the credit generously afforded Team Yu by some (because a veneer of credibility helps us achieve our remaining goals), we would like this page, along with our timeline, to serve as a reminder of the heartache and dedication put in by others to bring us all to this gratefully advantageous position.
This remarkable story, with its cast of characters as diverse as the games themselves, has been written by many different authors but always with the same ink; an ink that, for reasons unknowable to most, bled from the hole in each of our souls like the sap of a fallen tree. Until one day, against all the odds, that majestic tree was restored and our wounds were healed.
"Every year, we wish each other a happy new year in the hope that Shenmue III will finally be announced," says Rémy.
"2015 was the last time."