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Yuji Naka interview by 1UP (June 25, 2010)

From Sonic Retro

Yuji Naka Interview: Ivy the Kiwi and a Little Sega Time Traveling

The main man behind Sonic, NiGHTS, and more discusses his new puzzle game, and we explore some of his favorite moments of his early days.

By Ray Barnholt

When Yuji Naka, one of the "fathers" of Sonic the Hedgehog, left Sega to form his own company, many people expected more of the same: character-centric, big-deal action games that were dressed to impress. It turned out to be quite the contrary: the new company, Prope, has only a double-digit number of employees, and concentrates on making games that may be less ambitious, yet aim to be more fun.

During E3 2010, Naka was representing Prope's latest game, Ivy the Kiwi?, published by XSEED for Wii and Nintendo DS. We took the opportunity to sit down with Naka and ask him about Prope, Ivy, the potential of both, and we even went down memory lane, touching on some key games Naka was involved with in his years at Sega.

The Interview

Ivy and Prope

1UP: It's been about a year since Let's Tap came out in America, and you've had some smaller games come out since then -- Let's Catch, and the original Windows Mobile version of Ivy the Kiwi? -- is doing those sort of larger projects yearly with smaller ones in between sort of the goal of Prope?

Yuji Naka: When we created Let's Tap, we were actually working on another title which took about a year. But unfortunately [that second one] didn't make it out to the public. Right now we're working on two big titles, as well, and I think these two will come out, but in between we work on titles like Let's Tap and Ivy the Kiwi.

1UP: Is the size of the studio still kind of modest compared to the number of projects you have?

YN: Initially, we were [aiming for] 50 employees, and right now we have 38. In my opinion, I think that's a really good number, because if it becomes too big, it gets to the point where I'm not familiar with everybody's faces -- I'm not sure who's working on what. But on a smaller sort of scale, I can have a more personal relationship and really see what's going on, and we all have the same goal, and it's easy to talk about where we're headed together.

1UP: It sounds like a classroom, and you're a teacher who has a small group of students to interact with.

YN: Yeah, I think it's a really good size, even if we think on a worldwide scale. When it becomes like 100 people or 200 people on a project -- Sonic was more than a hundred -- at that point, I'm not really sure who's working on what. I know them, but I'm not sure what exactly they're doing, and I'm one of those people who really wants to be involved in the small details, and when [the team is] blown up like that, I'm not really sure who to talk to anymore. I think it depends on how you control your team, too, but with my personality and my way of making stuff, I really want to be involved in the small details, and it's easy to control in that sense.

1UP: In terms of game development, are you right where you want to be at this point in your life?

YN: Yeah, it is an ideal situation where I want to be. For example, with Ivy the Kiwi?, I was directly involved with adjusting the game balance, and I was like that at the start of Sonic, I was the main programmer. But as Sonic grew bigger, I was less and less involved with those parts, and they're something I like to be involved in. So, if you play Ivy the Kiwi? and think it's too hard, you can write me; "Yuji Naka, this is too hard!" [Smiles]

1UP: I did always get that sense from you in other interviews, that you always like to have your hands in things as much as possible.

YN: I think it sort of becomes, like, how old can I be and still be a game creator? If you're in the movie industry, you can be in your 60s or 70s and still make great movies, and the game business is still young; [games have] only been around for 30 years. And, for example, [Shigeru] Miyamoto-san, he's in his 50s, and he's at a good point. When I get to my 60s or 70s and still be a game creator, I'll be really happy to do so. Before I "reset," I really want to be involved in the grunt work as much as possible to get my experience up.

1UP: Let's talk a little bit about Ivy the Kiwi? -- which came first: the character or the game concept? Sonic, if I recall correctly, was created as a character first. Was it the same with Ivy?

YN: For Sonic, at first, we did have the concept of the character needing to be really speedy with a good way to attack enemies, so from there we went with a spiky hedgehog. With Ivy, you don't control the character directly, so we decided later to go with a flightless bird, and to have the player act as a sort of parental figure, where you have a feeling of wanting to support that character, so it became a baby kiwi.

1UP: I think it's a good choice. There haven't been enough kiwis in videogames, not since The New Zealand Story.

YN: Oh, that takes me back! I haven't heard that title in a long time. I thought I was being original with [Ivy], but yeah, I totally forgot that New Zealand Story used a kiwi. [Laughs] Actually, I should check out that game again and see if there's any similarities.

1UP: Was it you who had the first idea for Ivy as this sort of puzzle game, or someone else at Prope?

YN: This project initially started among some of my young employees; they were just doing experiments, and I saw the game, and thought it was a real interesting concept, so we decided to make it into a company-wide project. As someone that's been involved in games, at first I didn't think it would work using a pointer in an action-type game, but just by making two points [in creating the vines used to guide Ivy along], you can control the character somewhat freely, so that was a big discovery for me. 1UP: One thing that's been on my mind lately, especially now with Ivy, is how touch and motion control is bringing about a new type of puzzle game, almost redefining the genre. I was wondering if you agree with that; if there will come a time where gamers only think of puzzle games as things that use touch or motion?

YN: Yes, I think that, especially with touch screens and pointers, [control is] becoming more accurate, bringing less frustration, and we can see what we used in the past and make changes for the future, and that is going pretty well. And of course, as a developer, we always look at new technology and figure out ways to utilize it.

1UP: So, do you think that at some point, someone will think "puzzle game" and think of something that uses a pointer, or their finger? More than with any other genre.

YN: I don't think it will get to that point. I think you'll have [extra categories] like "touch puzzle" or "motion puzzle," some sort of new phrase for them.

1UP: I'd like to know who crafted the music for Ivy. It has a sort of ragtime feel to it.

YN: Well, we didn't really have our sound staff work on it. It was actually done by the planner of the game; he just came up and started humming some music and worked on it from there. I think it's really like those classic games that you play and you keep humming its music, it has that same sort of comfort level.

1UP: Absolutely. XSEED was showing Ivy to me the other week, and the music quickly got stuck in my head.

YN: Especially recently, I think it's harder to find games with music that really sticks with you. When you think of the old games, there's so much music that comes to mind.

1UP: I agree, but then again, the Mario games have had pretty consistently infectious music. They still keep it up.

YN: Yeah, those are great. We did try and use that as a base in the creation of Ivy's music. If I ever hear a child humming that Ivy theme, I'll be more than satisfied with our job.

Sega Days

1UP: I'd like to do a bit of time traveling, now, and go back through your career at Sega. I have a small list of games that you were involved in, and I'd like to ask for at least one memory from your time making them that stands out. First is Girl's Garden, your very first game for the SG-1000 console.

YN: Yeah, it was the first one I created after I joined Sega. Back then, the [SG-1000] hardware wasn't really selling to girls, so my boss at the time came up to me and said, "come up with a game that can relate to the female audience," so I started making it. I thought it was just a little test for me, but my boss really liked it and was like, "OK, we're going to make this into a product." Altogether it took four months to make that game, but the first two months were just me nonchalantly putting it together, since I was still in that "test" phase. The next two months were really hectic, since I had to finish it all up. Looking back, I really don't want anybody to go in there and look at the programming, because as a game, it looks like it's working, but inside it's just awful. [Laughs]

1UP: Well, we were all young once.

YN: I was 18, in fact. That's when I joined Sega. I wasn't that bright, so I couldn't get into college, but I was able to join Sega.

1UP: It worked out, though.

YN: Indeed. I was lucky. [Laughs]

1UP: Next is Phantasy Star, certainly the first one on Master System, but even all the early 2D installments. Since it was from a more innocent time, and this was a relatively large-scale game, an RPG, I'd imagine there might be some good memories.

YN: Actually, the very first Phantasy Star only took four and a half months to create, so it was in no way a big title.

1UP: Well, compared to Girl's Garden...

[Laughs]

YN: That's true. Girl's Garden was the first, and then I had a little more experience, a few more games under my belt, so in that case, Phantasy Star was a big title. [Before that,] there was a Commodore 64 game called 3D Dungeon, and the motion and animation was very smooth, and I was blown away by how that worked. I wanted to create something similar on the Mark III/Master System. Maybe a dungeon or maze you could fly through to communicate a sense of speed, but the only problem was that it was moving too smooth and people started getting motion sick. So we decided to make it a little slower and maybe put an RPG around it, like Phantasy Star.

Back then, when we were making a 3D dungeon, we thought we could turn it into an arcade game, because that was when everything was 2D, and to see a big 3D dungeon on [a monitor] was pretty refreshing.

1UP: But making an arcade game of it never got past being an idea.

YN: Right, they [the arcade division] didn't consider it.

1UP: Next is Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which I bring up especially because it turned into such a big deal at the time, and you were making it in America.

YN: The main reason we had the team over here [in America] was to figure out how to best appeal to the U.S. Sega also wanted to make the Mega Drive a bigger hit in Japan, so we wanted to put a label on Sonic 2 saying it was a huge hit in America. We were starting to create Sonic 2 in Japan, but were kind of guessing; "maybe they'd like something like this, maybe we can do it this way." I decided the best way was to go to America and get their feedback directly. We went to San Francisco, and watching the kids in the focus groups play it and see their reactions was really helpful. And that certainly changed my game creation style -- my concept of game design was on a more worldwide scale, and that was a really important highlight of my life.

Another thing I thought of: In Sonic 1, it was all about how fast you could move, and so one thing we wanted to add was a race where you could compete against someone else. We made the two-player mode with a split screen, but the only problem was the screen was too small back then. So, after we started on Sonic 2, I thought we really needed a two-player mode as part of expanding on the original. We did a lot of fine adjustment in the speed and such, but I think it turned out how we envisioned it.

1UP: The split screen was pretty impressive back then.

YN: Especially with the Genesis resolution, all the games are usually 320x224, but for Sonic 2, it's in the 400 range, so programming-wise, it was a lot more difficult [to pull off the split screen]. There's a lot of hurdles that we had to go through, but when it worked, it was something I was really proud of, and as a programmer, I'm really happy about that title.

1UP: I'd like to jump forward in time, with a little more obscure title: Sonic Jam on Saturn, the collection of the Genesis Sonic games. Basically, I just want to know what was the idea in making that at that time.

YN: We were actually creating a 3D Sonic for the Sega Saturn, but right when we were in the thick of development, Sega was getting ready for the next console, Dreamcast. It was at a crucial point where, if we were going to move ahead with the project, we'd better move it to Dreamcast, or else we wouldn't be able to finish it [for Saturn] in time. But we did have a certain amount of 3D graphics for the Saturn version, so we decided to [keep that and] pull in and emulate the Genesis games. For the Sega Saturn users back then, I'm sorry we couldn't create a 3D Sonic for them, but [in Jam] you were able to have a glimpse.

1UP: Right, and there were other Saturn games from Sonic Team like NiGHTS and Burning Rangers that had clear passion behind them, so maybe it wasn't a great loss. But regardless, is there part of you that regrets not making a "real" 3D Sonic for Saturn?

YN: Honestly, I was making so many Sonics, I wanted to make something new. But after NiGHTS, we were making Sonic, but it just would have been too late for that period. Because there's only me, there's no other Yuji Naka, I could only be the main programmer for NiGHTS, I couldn't do many projects at once. But after NiGHTS, Sega wanted me to oversee more projects, so that was the last game on which I was main programmer.

Every hardware launch, there's those crucial moments of timing. Saturn didn't have Sonic, and the GameCube had Luigi's Mansion; no Mario at the beginning. But Dreamcast did have Sonic from the beginning, and I think that's why it did well. Now that I've grown and can look back at those days, yeah, I think I should have thought more about the company, but back then I didn't care. I just wanted to create what I wanted to create.

But it's the same with Nintendo: There are times when Mr. Miyamoto isn't involved with [all] projects. And with 3DS, I'm surprised they're using Kid Icarus for launch, and not Mario. [Of course,] at the booth, you can see Mario Kart and Paper Mario, and maybe the public will view it differently, but in my opinion, I thought it would be better to have [a traditional] Mario with 3DS.

1UP: Speaking of Dreamcast, how did you feel about the Dreamcast years and the games you produced for it? It really seemed like a time when Sega was at its most creative, and I was wondering if maybe you felt "renewed" as a game creator in those days?

YN: Yeah. From whatever failures came from the Saturn, we didn't want to repeat our mistakes, so we had a lot of executives and software creators get together and figure out what to do; how to sell the next console. There were sooo many meetings, and we had inside advisors and outside advisors all giving us comments. But more than anything, I think [former Sega presidents] Irimajiri and Okawa had a lot of passion back then, and they were really pushing ahead to make a new console, and all the employees really felt that. So we wanted to meet their expectations, and I think as a team we worked really well.

I was remembering the "dream team" meetings that happened every week. We were deciding what kind of hardware to do, what kind of software, the specs... all of that was done in those weekly meetings.

1UP: Those were the same collaborative meetings between the hardware and software teams?

YN: Yeah. Usually when you talk about hardware and software, there are different teams that don't really communicate with each other, but back then, I think that was one of the things that really worked well for our company. And on top of the business team [joining], there were the outside advisors, and another thing that was interesting is that we often changed the venue of the meeting rooms. We used the advisors' offices, basically to stimulate inspiration, because when you're in the same meeting room every time, you can't think too differently.

1UP: Well, thank you for time traveling with me. I have one last big question, from one of our readers. Gixman asked: if you had the chance, what classic Sega franchise would you like to work on again for a next-gen system?

[Naka thinks for a moment]

1UP: Did you have a favorite Sega game that wasn't one of your own?

YN: I really like Yu Suzuki's games, because I feel like I want to play his games again.

1UP: Yeah, a lot of people do. I loved it when OutRun 2 came out.

YN: He might be able to use his talents more on the arcade side. Well, I'm not sure I want to make Sonic again, but... Girl's Garden! It's a really fun game. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I was using an emulator to play it recently, and I was really surprised how much fun it was. [Laughs]

1UP: Even though you weren't completely satisfied with the programming?

YN: Well, I was young, and it was one of those projects where we all put our minds together and were joking around, just having a good time making it. One other thing is that, because I was so young back then, I had so much flexibility and ideas. And it goes back to Ivy the Kiwi?, where it was the young employees bringing their ideas together. As you get older as a creator, your thinking tends to be one-sided, or not as flexible as it used to be. So when I hear what the young creators are coming up with, it really inspires me, and I want to expand that as much as possible. And I've been called a "game creator" for a long time, but it's not like I come up with everything. It's all a team effort, and saying "that's a good idea, how can we use that?" and putting all the good parts together into a good game. My thinking isn't necessarily making something new and moving forward from there, but based on my experience, I get to see what has potential and can expand it from there.

1UP: So to answer the original question: You'd remake Girl's Garden?

YN: Yeah, maybe with a super hot girl! [Laughs] The game itself was about a girl trying to win this guy's heart, and all these other girls are trying to get him, so you bring him flowers while he's waiting at his house. Doesn't that sound like a fun game to you? From a guy's point of view, all you have to do is stay at home and all these girls are fighting over you, so what else could you want?

1UP: Yeah, it's a nice idea. Sounds like it reflected your youth.

YN: I guess so, huh? [Laughs]