The Next Level: What gave you the idea to set up the gameplay with three controllable characters at once?
Yuji Naka: Well, it's the rule of threes, I guess. We have one dark team and three light teams each consisting of three characters and since this was the first time we were pushing a game simultaneously on three different platforms, it made sense.
The Next Level: Do you think future Sonic games will follow a similar format?
Yuji Naka: For us the end-users come first, so it really all depends on how the consumers react to it. If people like it, we'll probably put out more like it.
Yuji Naka: It took more time for the PS2 version compared to the other versions, yes, but it was also hard because we were working for two other platforms at the same time. I think that if it was a PS2-only game, we could have really optimized it for the system, but since we had two other consoles to worry about, we had to divide our limited time and resources amongst all systems. However, I think Sonic Heroes still manages to look better than many PS2-only games out there.
Yuji Naka: Jun Senoue is actually with Sonic Team USA at the moment and has been with us for quite a while now. He communicates with Wavemaster on a regular basis, and they do a lot of support with him and us for the sound and musical aspects of the Sonic games. We do the recordings and things like that here in our own studios.
The Next Level: Many long time Sonic fans were very happy to see the return of favorite characters from Knuckles Chaotix (Sega 32X). Do you think the Chaotix crew will show up again in any future titles?
Yuji Naka: Hmmm . . . I don't know that much about Chaotix, really. I didn't have all that much to do with that game. [laughs] Well, since we've expanded the platforms the game is put out for, this might be a lot of new players' first experience with Sonic. We wanted to put in a lot of characters from the old Sonic legacy to introduce them to the worlds of Sonic. We also thought that old-school fans would get a kick out of it, too.
The Next Level: What are your thoughts on the recent Sonic anime series? Are you pleased with how it's turned out?
Yuji Naka: Yes. We didn't have any control over previous animated series, such as the ones that aired in the West many years back. This one we had a lot more personal involvement in, story- and design-wise. We knew it would be airing in the U.S. and Europe as well, so we wanted to present a show more in line with the current vision of Sonic that we have. So yes, of course, we like the new one more because we actually have a lot of input on this one compared to the other ones in the past.
'The Next Level: Phantasy Star Online Episode IIIs gameplay is quite different from that of its predecessors. Why the shift to a card-based battle system?
Yuji Naka: Well, going from the Dreamcast version on through Version II to the GameCube version, we came to feel like the fanbase wanted a new experience. So, in order for new users to enjoy PSO, we thought we should develop a game which would return to a traditional turn-based style rather than action. This opinion has been around for a while. Episode III exists not to replace Episodes I & II. Instead, we created it thinking that it would be great if the game would help enlarge the PSO world, as is indicated by the fact that players of both games can chat in common lobbies.
The Next Level: We've noticed there are a lot of card-style games coming from Japan recently. Do you think this is a genre that is here to stay?
Yuji Naka: Well, card games continue to be released, but they get more and more complex over time. If users can keep on adapting to these complexities, they'll stay around. If they become too much for people, they'll probably fall out of favor.
The Next Level: What are your thoughts on other popular MMORPGs, like Ragnarok and FFXI? How do you think PSO distinguishes itself from these games?
Yuji Naka: Well, PSO is more along the lines of a pure action-RPG than FFXI. With FFXI, you've got lots and lots of menus, text, and dialogue to wade through before you can do anything. We wanted to do something with a more simplistic, action-arcadey feel to it, something that was easier to get into, which you could pick up and enjoy almost immediately.
The Next Level: You mean like something like Gauntlet?
Yuji Naka: Like that, yes, or maybe Diablo, but in a full 3D world with team multiplayer aspects.
The Next Level: Did you ever get back those PSO figures that vanished during E3 2002?
Yuji Naka: Nope. In the end we wound up having to make them all over again. Damn, they cost a lot to remake. [laughs]
The Next Level: Your next game is the PS2 Astro Boy. Osamu Tezuka's characters and creations are extremely highly regarded throughout the world. It is also Sonic Team's first licensed game. Are you in any way worried about creating a title with such a high-class license?
Yuji Naka: I am worried, yes. Osamu Tezuka's properties are some of the most beloved out there. There's a very high standard we have to live up to. . . . It's a good feeling to be able to have this license, but it is a lot of work to make something that lives up to its pedigree. I really want to do my best for it, especially since I like his work so much myself. It's a big responsibility to have.
The Next Level: Can you tell us anything about the game?
Yuji Naka: We plan to release it in Japan during the spring of this year. We wanted to make something very faithful to the spirit of the anime. It's primarily a mission-based action-adventure title. I really like the world of Astro Boy that Tezuka has laid out over the years, so I want it to live up to that standard as much as possible.
The Next Level: Sonic Team licensed the Havok 2.0 physics engine specifically for use in this game. What sort of things are you planning to do with it?
Yuji Naka: We think it will give a more realistic feeling to the world of Astro Boy, and give the player a better sense of control and accomplishment. Like, if you pick up something and throw it, or push things over, the effects are visible and authentic. The physics in this world are based a bit on fantasy, so it's not going to be completely realistic, but . . .
The Next Level: What sort of genres or subgenres are you interested in working with in the future?
Yuji Naka: Hmmm, I want to come up with something entirely new, something that doesn't fit into any established genre - so a new genre that doesn't exist yet. But, we haven't really made a pure adventure game yet, have we? PSO has adventure elements, but still . . .
The Next Level: The Sega Ages series has been very popular so far. Can we look forward to any Sonic Team game releases under this label? Sonic CD in particular is a highly demanded title.
Yuji Naka: There's a lot of old stuff coming out again under that label. We did put out the Sonic Mega Collection a while back, so most of the Sonic games have been re-released in some form or other, save for a few, like Sonic CD, Chaotix, Sonic R, and Sonic Fighters. As for Sonic CD, we have considered maybe putting it out on something like the PS2 perhaps. Still, when you think about it we have quite an extensive back catalog of games that have not been re-released yet.
The Next Level: Sega has been doing extremely well in arcades recently. Has Sonic Team ever given thought to working on an arcade game?
Yuji Naka: Well, actually, we have done quite a few arcade games already, like Samba de Amigo. We have also released Puyo Puyo Fever on the Naomi recently, and our properties have appeared in a lot of other Sega arcade games, like Sonic Fighters. I have thought about maybe doing more arcade work in the future when we've completed our current projects.
The Next Level: Ah yes, that's right. So does Sonic Team fully own the rights to Puyo Puyo now that Compile is gone?
Yuji Naka: Well, actually, Sega as a whole owns the rights to Puyo Puyo, and has done so for about the past five years or so. We had the rights long before Compile ceased to exist. We've just been the ones in charge of revamping and remarketing it, in the forms of games like Minna de Puyo Puyo and now Puyo Puyo Fever.
We actually came up with a clever marketing scheme for the release of Puyo Puyo Fever. It [was] released in Japan on 2/4/2004. Pu is an alternative word for the number 2 and yo is the number 4, so that translates to 2/4 or 24. So the release dates are really tied into the word "Puyo."
The Next Level: Last year saw the release of a lot of excellent games. What titles impressed you the most?
Yuji Naka: Wow. That's tough. Hmmm . . . I suppose GTA3 needs to be mentioned, but I think the Shin Sangoku Musou [Dynasty Warriors] series deserves special mention as well. Although its basis is Chinese history, it's got great gameplay and character appeal, so much so that it has managed to do quite well in all the major console markets: Japan, USA, Europe, and Korea. Koei's really got something going there.
The Next Level: What game so far this generation do you think has had the biggest effect on the industry as a whole?
Yuji Naka: Again, probably GTA3 in the West and Shin Sangoku Musou in Asia. You're starting to see a lot of developers on all sides of the globe looking at those games for examples of good game concepts and what appeals to those specific markets.
The Next Level: You recently participated in the Famicom 20th anniversary exhibit running at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. What was that experience like?
Yuji Naka: Well, it was something I enjoyed a great deal, and it has major significance for me personally. Sega's first stuff came out at around the same time as the Famicom. They really set something we had to try to follow and outdo. But everyone wanted the Famicom. It made me sad, and more than a little bit envious. "We've got great games here! I worked very hard on these! Why aren't people buying our stuff?" I thought. [laughs] Sega's real strength at the time was in the arcades, though.
The Next Level: Rumors have it that you even programmed a Famicom emulator for the Mega Drive at one point in time, for your personal amusement. Is this true?
Yuji Naka: Oh my. [laughs] How do you people know about that one? Well yeah, actually I did. I did it primarily for study purposes. It ran things like Dr. Mario, although it did not work perfectly, actually. It was something fun to amuse myself with at the time.
The Next Level: You mentioned in the interview shown at the exhibit that you would love to go back to being just another programmer. A lot of people don't really understand why you love working with code so much. What is it about programming that you find so enjoyable?
Yuji Naka: Well, it's kind of an abstract concept, but as a programmer, I can make something from nothing. Like for example, paper is made from wood, potters create pots and vases from clay. Usual "creative" work is just to change the shapes of certain materials into something else. With programming, you start with only the code basis, and you can make it into a big, interesting world. It's like a big empty ocean which you can start filling with plants and fish and coral and then make them behave and work however you please. That sense of creating something, the control you have to make something out of nearly nothing and control what is going on gives you a feeling of omnipotence, of god-like power. It’s a feeling that is very hard to describe.
Damn, I really want to go back. [laughs]
The Next Level: Besides working with games and code, what sort of hobbies do you enjoy these days?
Yuji Naka: I love car racing. I've really gotten into that lately, though I'm still just a beginner.
The Next Level: Oh that reminds me: Sega in the early 90's heavily sponsored the Williams Formula 1 team with a Sonic the Hedgehog-themed car, do you guys still have that car?
Yuji Naka: Oh yes. That's a while ago. It's supposed to be in our offices or warehouses somewhere. We just can't seem to locate it anymore; we don't know where we put it! [laughs]