Edge Magazine interview with Yuji Naka

Interview Data:

  • Interview Date: February 2005
  • Interview Topics: DS, PSP, Sega-Sammy, Kimishine, Online
  • Interview Source: Edge Online external.png

We talk to a tired and worried Yuji Naka about the release of Project Rub and his plans for the future:
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The stylisation of Project Rub made it one of the most eye-catching DS titles, even Sega titles, of recent memory. How did that develop?
Because the DS has a touchscreen, you can also rub it. Well, in Japanese L and R sound exactly the same: 'rub' also sounds like 'love'. So we decided Project Rub would be a love story, especially since Nintendo said they wanted the DS to appeal to a broad market, and love stories have that traditional appeal - in movies, for example.

In order to appeal to people who do not normally play games, as Nintendo wanted, we needed a visual design that was completely different than usual, which is what this 'psychedelic' appearance is about.
Now, the silhouettes are because we didn't want to force you to have a certain girl as your love interest. You can imagine that your dream girl is inside of that silhouette.

Except, traditionally, these broadly appealing love stories haven't featured scorpion delivery vans, unicycling and circus troupes…
No, it's not really a traditional love story! But the main character is trying so hard to get this girl, which is why he joins the circus performers - it is a way of expressing how far he will go. These days I think we're losing young people in Japan: they don't think trying hard, generally speaking, is cool. So it's really important to find a way to make them feel.

Do you think that using an abstract representation to bring out these feelings is more successful than making use of a realistic representation?
I definitely think there is more connection. These days, developers have to make their games realistic to demonstrate the hardware's power. But to use symbolism - like we used to - brings the game closer to the player, and the fun is more pure. The more realistic you make the game, the more you can lose the player's imagination, and then they start noticing all these aspects they don't like.

I'm not saying this is always the case, but it's the design rule I want to follow in the future. The problem is that with better hardware you're forced to make a more realistic show of the graphics, otherwise people won't be impressed by it. A game should not be afraid to be a game, but now it seems that in pursuing realism the feeling you get from playing games is changing. It's almost as if the concept behind making them has changed. And that's not always a good thing.

On that note, many gamers have been concerned that the merger with Sammy would see Sega's output forced towards a more marketable, less exuberant approach.
Actually, the Sega-Sammy merger does not have that sort of impact on development - it's quite the opposite. Because Oguchi-san used to be a developer, now he is CEO he still has that love for new approaches, for trying out new methods. So we had no problem with developing it. This year has been really fun for me, doing Sega Superstars, doing Project Rub. The last time I remember having this much fun was with Samba De Amigo, and in comparison I think this has almost been better.

Were you concerned at all with how Project Rub would be received in the west, with its prominence as one of the first titles available for the DS?
We have always had to think about the western market with any title that we make. Any time you try a new direction, whether it is for a Japanese audience or a western one, it's worrying. And I'm very prone to worrying already! [Laughs] So yes, anything I do I'm worried about, and maybe I was a little bit more so with this. But that didn't change the game.

What about the Maniac mode - did you consider that the west is a lot more prudish in that respect?
That was one thing I didn't worry about. Half of the Project Rub team is female, and during development it was the male developers who were the shy ones. They would just touch the girl's hands, whereas the women would go straight for the boobs to see the reaction. A lot of the ideas for the game came from the female designers, so I didn't think that would be a problem.

Why did you choose to develop a new title for the Nintendo DS and not the PSP? Was it a matter of preference?
Both consoles have their own personality. I felt that for DS, because what it offers is so new, I had to make something entirely new for it. For PSP… obviously we are making new games for PSP now, but I didn't feel there was that same necessity to make a completely new game, not yet. And we were also working on Sega Superstars at the same time, so we didn't have the resources for another original project.

Would you agree with the comments made by Satoru Iwata of Nintendo that the PSP is 'built on an old formula for success', of technology over innovation?
I think that the networking opportunities of the PSP will be interesting, but at this moment it seems like no one is ready to use them. There's nothing like Pictochat on DS, and that's the direction they should be exploring on PSP. Until then, well, I partly agree with what he has said.

So do you think the future of the new handhelds is in their communication aspects?
If people want these new features from the PSP, then yes. But I feel that most PSP users will be happy to play PS2 games, only on a handheld, whereas DS users will be more receptive to trying out new things. Of course, on a technical level it doesn't work to just port a PS2 game on to the PSP. So… we'll see how things turn out.

Online functionality looks to feature heavily in the next generation of consoles. After pioneering it with Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast, are you surprised other manufacturers have taken so long to catch up?
Sega has always been famous for going too far ahead too early. If we were a little bit slower, then maybe we could have won the hardware market. But that's what we've always, always been known for. So I'm not really surprised that it has taken so long. And as I've been doing online things for all these years now, I was ready to try something different. That's one reason Project Rub has been so fun for me. The things about online that we… suffered [laughs], the hacking, bad users, illegal users - in the end we really spent more time just trying to keep those things out than actually developing the game, and that's why I'm sick of online. But if hardware manufacturers can figure out a system that keeps all of that out for us, I'd love to make more. If that's not possible, it's hard to be enthusiastic about online gaming.

With the release of two new handhelds within a month of each other, and three new major platforms likely to be shown next year, how do you feel looking forward?
Tired. [Laughs] We have nine platforms to develop for, it's too much! It's exhausting. With Puyo Pop Fever, this year in Japan we did it across 15 different platforms as an experiment to see how many we could manage. We could do that with Puyo Pop because it's a small game, but anything more complicated? No chance. Ideally, I'd like less hardware. At the moment, there's no possibility to make experimental games on each different platform, and then there is the balance between the new consoles and the old - which should we develop for? It's very confusing.

Has the consolidation of Sega helped you at all in this respect?
Personally, what's changed the most is that Sonic Team is no longer a separate company. Before, I was basically the CEO of Sonic Team and I managed our money. Now that we have gone back to Sega, I still have to balance the finances, but with Sega's money, and it's not so clear how much is coming in, how much is going out. And that means I'm spending more time on the business side now. Obviously that has an effect on how we develop games.

But for Sega overall, it has been a good business decision. When the developers were separate, they made their own tools, but in the new structure we can share them, which does help.

What are your plans for the next year and the new hardware?
Well, Sonic DS is coming as well as another title for DS, and there will be a PSP title also. And next year, Phantasy Star Universe will come out, so we're really busy on that at this moment - I don't think we will have time for many other new games. I can't talk much about the details of PSU, but I have just been in Poland with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra for recording, which was a great feeling. We're very excited about it.


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