Sega.com Interview with Yuji Naka

Interview Data:

  • Interview Date: Unknown 2001 (approximate date)
  • Interview Topics: PSO, Sonic Adventure 2, Online games, the future
  • Interview Source: Sega.com external.png

Yuji Naka
Creator of Sonic and
Phantasy Star Online

There's no question that Sega is the house that Yuji Naka built. Ten years ago he took the world by storm with a little blue creation called Sonic the Hedgehog. Since then, Naka-san has continued to innovate with games such as NiGHTS, Burning Rangers, and Sonic Adventure. His latest masterwork is Phantasy Star Online, the first online console RPG. We talked with Naka-san about PSO, Sonic Adventure 2, and what he does away from the office.

Sega.com: Phantasy Star is a series that is very dear to fans of Sega. How does Phantasy Star Online take the series forward?
Yuji Naka: By using the Phantasy Star name, we've taken the Phantasy Star worldview and science fiction setting and brought it online. But we didn't really take the storylines from the previous games or anything like that.

Sega.com: So, it wasn't necessarily that you were making a Phantasy Star game from the outset.
Yuji Naka: The starting point [for PSO] was as an online game. The Dreamcast has a modem, so to take advantage of that we wanted to make an online game. We did some experimentation to see if we could do an online RPG, and once we got to that point we needed a worldview and a setting, so we decided to use Phantasy Star.

Sega.com: When making PSO, did you look at other online RPGs?
Yuji Naka: This is the first time we've made an online RPG, so we looked at games like Diablo and Ultima Online.

Sega.com: And in looking at those games, what aspects did you use for PSO?
Yuji Naka: Because this is a console RPG as opposed to PC RPG, most of the users are a little bit younger. So for example in Diablo, you can kill other players. We wanted to remove that aspect and instead focus on the cooperative nature of the game.

Sega.com: I'd like you to describe the overall design process of PSO; the order of how things went along, the amount of time things took, and so on.
Yuji Naka: The way we make games in Sonic Team is that we first do experiments to make sure the technology works, in this case the online technology. Then we get the basic components of the game going and make sure its fun, and then we add the storyline, the worldview, and stuff like that. So in this case it is our first online RPG, but we did ChuChu Rocket. That was a game in and of itself, but it was also in one sense an experiment to make sure the online aspect works as a stepping stone for PSO. All in all, it's taken about two years [to develop].

Sega.com: What was your favorite part of the design process of PSO?
Yuji Naka: There are parts of the game making process that only developers can really appreciate. There are things we put in [a game] because there is no storyline or worldview yet, and ultimately they have to be removed before the game ships… but that's the kind of thing I really enjoy.

Sega.com: And the most difficult part?
Yuji Naka: In this case it was the network. We learned a lot of lessons from ChuChu Rocket, but for PSO we had to learn a lot about the differences of networking in different countries, since this is a global RPG. I realized in a sense how great Microsoft is, because as long as you have Windows, you can connect to the network and play online games anywhere. So with Diablo and Ultima Online, Windows takes care of most of the networking stuff; whereas in making PSO we had to start with the game, and then one level below that — the network.

A PC costs maybe 10 times as much as a Dreamcast, and people generally look at the many PC games that are online and think it must be easy, since there's a whole bunch of them. But people probably don't realize how much more difficult it is to make network games for a machine that costs one-tenth of a PC. I think that in the end, we were able to create something that was even better.

Sega.com: One of the most interesting features of PSO is the universal language system. Please describe how it was conceived and implemented.
Yuji Naka: Five or six years ago we were still working on Burning Rangers [for Sega Saturn], and at that point we started talking about Dreamcast and started thinking about network gaming. [We determined] that language is basically the biggest barrier to global network gaming. So we started thinking about how to overcome this, about a universal language system… and then that got put on hold for a while. But when we began PSO, we started thinking about how to actually implement that, and it turned into the word select system that's in there now.

Sega.com: Another barrier to making a global RPG is different time zones. Please describe how Swatch's BEAT system was chosen and implemented.
Yuji Naka: The way Swatch envisioned and created the BEAT system was really interesting — creating one time for the whole Internet. And because Sega is working with Swatch, we wanted to encourage the use of the BEAT system.

Sega.com: Were there any difficulties in implementing the BEAT system?
Yuji Naka: The BEAT system that shows up on the game screen isn't just based on the Dreamcast settings — it's sent over from the server. And because there are so many different servers in different time zones, it was a bit of a pain to get all of that unified.

In the Dreamcast's case, you can't really assume that the user has set their Dreamcast clock to the correct time. So even if their timer is off, once they connect to the server, the server will correct their time and sync it up with everyone else's BEAT time.

If you go to the Swatch homepage, it shows the BEAT time there, but that time is based on the internal clock in your PC. So if your PC has the wrong time, the site will show you the wrong time, too. So in that sense, PSO's BEAT timer is the most accurate! [laughs]

Sega.com: I now want to talk about online games in general. What do you think the future of online games will be?
Yuji Naka: Online gaming on consoles has just started, but in five or ten years I think the words "online gaming" or "network gaming" will probably not be used anymore. It will be taken for granted, like radio and television that comes over the airwaves. It's just content on that particular media, and I think gaming will be the same way. People will play it and it will be networked, but so what? [laughs]

This game is called Phantasy Star Online, but probably five years from now people will look back at the title and say, "Look at the title, it says online!" [laughs] It'll probably look lame by those standards, but at this point it's still something that's new, and you have to say "online" just to get the point across.

Sega.com: Kind of like "movies in color!"
Yuji Naka: [laughs]

Sega.com: What concepts of PSO's online structure will you take forward to your next online game?
Yuji Naka: PSO has just been released, and I'm not sure whether a better online game will come out this year. I'd like to use the knowledge I've gained by making this to make my next game, but I'm not really sure what that will be yet.

Sega.com: Why do you create games? What drives you to create?
Yuji Naka: Probably because I like games, and I like to see people enjoying games.

Sega.com: What general gaming ideas do you want to explore in the future?
Yuji Naka: I've been making games for 17 years now, but I don't feel there's been a great evolution in games. It's just been better and better graphics, stuff like that… but no real change in the way games are made or played. So I'd like to take it to the next step, now that it is the 21st century and all that.

Sega.com: What will bring about that next step?
Yuji Naka: I don't really know. It's not just something where you can start with nothing, and then all of a sudden you'll be at the next step. It won't be something that simple. There's networking… but I don't think that networking will change everything — there's something beyond that. I don't know what it is yet, but networking is the first step we'll use to get there. Then I want to try as many different new things as possible, get my hands on different elements and technologies, so that I'll be ready and I will get to the next step.

Sega.com: Speaking of evolution, I want to now talk about Sonic Adventure 2. The 10th anniversary of Sonic is coming, and I'd like you to explain the evolution of Sonic as you see it.
Yuji Naka: 10 years ago when I first made Sonic I didn't think it was something that would last this long, so I'm really happy about that. When Sonic the Hedgehog was first released, it had a big impact on gaming. I want to make sure that it continues to have that kind of impact.

Sega.com: How will Sonic Adventure 2 continue to have that impact?
Yuji Naka: We've got a variety of different things in there, but I can't talk about it just yet.

Sega.com: Since we are Sega.com, we are interested in online features. What are the online features of Sonic Adventure 2?
Yuji Naka: For Sonic Adventure 2, it is the 10th anniversary of Sonic games, so we've been doing information releases in Japan, the U.S., and Europe simultaneously. So as much as I'd like to, I can't really tell you guys right here.

Sega.com: Going back to the concept of evolution, what gaming technologies do you foresee that will help bring about the next step?
Yuji Naka: One example is Samba de Amigo, where you have the maracas and the system that senses their position. I'd like to explore more in that area — not necessarily with new controllers but with something that can sense position and things like that. And another thing is that in Japan we have released games for cell phones. So games that you can take with you and play wherever you want, that's something I'm interested in.

Sega.com: Now to end on a light note, I'd like to know what you do when you are away from the office.
Yuji Naka: I really like cars, so what I've been doing recently is participating in races. I went to about nine races last year, and raced in four of them. It's not really professional racing or anything — it's just for fun. There are people who come and watch, so that's pretty fun for me.

Sega.com would like to thank Naka-san for his time, Osamu Shibamiya for his translating skills, Rich Briggs for setting it all up, and Chris Olson for the "movies in color" joke.

—Marc Cellucci


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