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Yuji Naka On New Beginnings At His Studio, Prope

Gamasutra presents a rare interview with Sonic The Hedgehog co-creator Yuji Naka, with the famed designer discussing why he left Sega, his new studio Prope and the innovative Let's Tap.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

December 29, 2008

8 Min Read

[In an extended version of a Game Developer magazine article, EIC Brandon Sheffield presents a rare interview with Sonic The Hedgehog co-creator Yuji Naka, discussing why he left Sega, his new studio Prope and the innovative Let's Tap.]

Yuji Naka is best known for his role in the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog. His programming skill allowed for Sonic's iconic speed, as well as the multitude of ring sprites he got the Genesis console to push in its early days -- alongside the impressive-for-the-time parallax scrolling.

After also helping to create classic titles such as Nights and Chu Chu Rocket, Naka more recently left Sega to form his own studio called Prope, and is now developing two games, Let's Tap and Let's Catch, for the Wii. Sega remains publisher and partial owner of his company.

Let's Tap is unique in that it's played without touching the controller -- the Wii remote sits on top of the provided box, and you actually tap the box to make characters move and jump and run, or complete other actions.

Lately, I feel that Naka has been overly marginalized by press and developers alike. He is often described as unfriendly and reclusive, and overly-controlling of projects with which he's associated.

I would like to provide a counterpoint here. The only times I've met him, he was walking around the show floor of the Tokyo Game Show, seeing how people liked his games, or at E3 social events. Without a translator, without anyone to curb his speech, he's approachable, candid, and well-spoken.

There is an unconfirmed anecdote that circulated around the Western press which states that when he left to build Prope, he offered any Sonic Team member the opportunity to go with him, and almost no one did. This was used to prove his lack of relevance in the current industry. I could see this anecdote being true -- but I would see it from another perspective.

He left to do his own thing, in a regional industry that is very reluctant to change, or to challenge the status-quo. Further, Naka's reasons for trying to control projects related to Sonic become clear once you read just a few paragraphs into this interview.

Sega/Prope's Let's Tap

Though the article is brief, I find Yuji Naka to be thoughtful and driven, not arrogant, and he left Sega because he still wanted to make games, not just manage them. It's my hope that this interview will increase understanding both of Naka, and the constraints of the Japanese industry.

Where did the idea for Let's Tap come from?

Yuji Naka: It was something I came up with while we were working on another action game. I had noticed around that time that the Wii controller was a remarkably precise device, capable of detecting even very small, faint vibrations.

We did a bit of a test where we placed the controller on a desk and started tapping on the desktop around it.

Not only did the Wiimote detect that, but it also detected when we tapped on a desk placed adjacent to the one it was lying on.

Looking at that, I thought that it was pretty neat, that maybe we could do something with this.

From there, I thought about how up to now, rhythm games have been largely digital in nature -- made up of 0s and 1s representing "off" and "on" -- but this controller could measure more gradual levels of input in between those two extremes.

So it was a process of discovery that ultimately led to the idea, the idea to take a digital game and make it analog and able to accept a wider range of input.

Was it difficult to find the "fun" of such a simple interaction as this?

YN: Well, think about it -- sometimes, do you find yourself just idly tapping on something during the day? I know I do it pretty much all the time, and I think everybody else does too. So I thought about making that into a game somehow. That's what makes this game fun, I think -- the fact that it's something everybody does now and again.

Now, of course, there are other music and rhythm games, titles where you're matching some kind of rhythm onscreen. But even in the case of Guitar Hero, it's still a matter of "on" or "off," 0 or 1. There isn't any measure of strength.

Meanwhile, with this there's a whole spectrum of strength to the tapping. It's something that's really pretty innovative even within the field of rhythm games.

With a lot of Wii games, my wrists end up hurting from all the flailing of the controller I'm doing.

YN: Yeah, they sure do.

Is this game different? Any concerns about finger fatigue?

YN: Well, your fingers are going to be tired here either way. It's a music game, after all! It's all a matter of moderation. I'm used to it so my fingers don't bother me at all, but when you begin, you might deal with that a bit. I think it's a pretty easy process.

What made you decide to quit Sega, or at least no longer work under the name Sega?

YN: Well, I could have stayed under Sega itself, but I already had a very high position there.

The game industry has a very short history behind it, and as a result, the more games you make, the further you work your way up the company ladder, until you become one of the heads of the whole outfit. Once that happens, you start running out of time to actually make games.

It's better to keep yourself directly involved with the actual game process, you know? Directors are pretty high up the job ladder in the movie industry, but they're still involved with every aspect of the film they're working on; they're still making movies their entire careers.

The game industry isn't quite like that, and I think that's a lost opportunity for a lot of people.

YN: Before I left Sega, I was high enough up that I was looking at every game the company was developing.

Once I was in that position, though, I found that I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty details instead with the games, including Sonic -- the whole "it'd be better if this bit were like this instead of that" type of thing. There was a lot I wanted to do that I couldn't gauge until someone actually tried making it.

So, at the age of 40, I convinced Sega to let me build a company -- since it's Sega that's behind the company, they're the one publishing the games.

Really, if you're a game creator, no matter how high a position you have in the industry, you need to keep creating.

It's better for the industry, and it's more fun for everybody involved.

How many people are in Prope right now?

YN: Right now it's about 40 staff members.

Will the "Let's" lineup become a series of games?

YN: If it sells well enough, sure. Of course, you can't really say how well it'll sell at this point, but if it does great -- if we can get a lot of people to play it and enjoy it -- I'd love to make another one.

Is Prope focused on these types of simpler games?

YN: We're actually planning on making a game like Sonic right now. We want to keep trying to make various kinds of games.

Character games and so on?

YN: Yes, that's what we're making now.

I noticed the penguin on the promotional page [one of the slogans for this game is "The world's first game that even a penguin can play!"] -- you see them on Suica [mass transit] cards too. What is with Japanese people and their fascination with penguins?

YN: You're right! Well, I like them! I always have. And, you know, it's true that even a penguin can play this.

The stand over there, showing the visualizer -- all you do in that game is tap away, and there really isn't anything more to it.

Anyone from a one-year-old to some 80-year-old man can enjoy that mode; it's the sort of thing you can see for yourself when you try it out.

In fact, the controller's so good at detecting the tapping that you can play it with your feet, if you actually wanted to try that.

I'd like to see some penguin playtesting.

YN: I sure would too!

For that matter, this is a game that people who are missing limbs could potentially play. Did you think about that as well?

YN: I can't say I was thinking about that in particular, but it always makes me happy to see a large variety of people enjoying our work.

There's a site called AbleGamers, a site written for disabled video game fans. This is certainly a project they would find interesting.

YN: I can definitely see that, because they wouldn't have any problem playing this, certainly. You can play the game with a single finger, even.

Have you ever considered giving a talk about your ideas at GDC?

YN: I'd certainly like to go again, but if I do, I definitely want to get the First Penguin Award. (laughs) That's part of the reason why I'm making new games like this one.

It's really a shame that they changed the name of it to the Pioneer Award. If I had the choice, I'd much rather have the "First Penguin" one someday! Even if it takes me another 10 or 20 years!

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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